(P)retirement's new frontier
Study focuses on city's young creatives - economic saviors or slackers?
Published by the Portland Tribune, Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Written by Peter Korn |
The key thing to understand about Evan Jones is that he doesn’t lack ambition. It only looks like he does.
A Southeast Portland resident, Jones, who moved to Portland 15 years ago, admits he isn’t ambitious in the traditional sense. A software engineer who possesses a number of talents, he has a very on-again, off-again work record. A few years of making big bucks writing code for Apple, then off for six months. An animation studio job followed by months of traveling.
Jones, 34, has a word for his lifestyle: pretirement. Or, to borrow a phrase from author John McDonald, Jones is taking his retirement in installments. When the money gets low, he takes another job.
But Jones isn’t lazy in his between job pretirement phases. He is, in fact, usually very busy in his home office programming computer-controlled machines that can carve out three-dimensional structures.
“My ambition is to be able to do things I love and make enough money for a comfortable life,” Jones says. “I have no desire to be running a million-dollar business.”
In a roundabout way, Portland has staked much of its economic future on young, college-educated people who have moved here, the so-called young creatives who supposedly will lead the city to an economic renaissance.
Portland has for years attracted these young creatives at an incredible rate. Economists have been saying that they are exactly the type of new residents that helps a city develop new ideas and new jobs. They’ll start businesses, the thinking goes, and those businesses will grow and employ people.
A new study to be released Sept. 19 by Portland State University professors Jason Jurjevich and Greg Schrock reveals just how many young creatives such as Jones have been coming here.
The study is called — with a nod to IFC’s “Portlandia” — “Is Portland Really the Place Where Young People Go To Retire?”
Jurjevich developed a “demographic effectiveness measure” that basically grades cities on their ability to attract and retain young people with college degrees. Portland ranks No. 2 nationally, behind only Louisville, Ky.
Underemployed by choice
Thirty years ago, one in four people moving to the Portland area had a college degree. In 2010, according to Jurjevich’s study, three of four new migrants held a degree.
Portland’s ability to attract and retain young, college-educated residents during a period when the city lost jobs has the PSU researchers scratching their heads.
For more than 50 years, Jurjevich says, people in this country consistently have moved to places where they were more likely to get jobs. Not now, and not in Portland. Jurjevich calls it “a new frontier in migration patterns.”
Those new migrants are coming to Portland and staying despite the fact that they are making 84 cents on the dollar compared to college grads in other U.S. cities. On average, a college-educated young Portlander makes about $8,000 less per year than a counterpart in Seattle doing comparable work.
The PSU report notes that young college-educated Portlanders have an unemployment rate 20 percent to 30 percent higher than the average for the nation’s 50 largest metro areas.
The educated young are coming to Portland, the PSU study suggests, for the cheaply obtained quality of life.
Which makes it unsurprising that the young creatives aren’t proving to be the economic engine the city had hoped. Multnomah County ranks second to last in job creation among 194 metro-area counties in the West during the past decade. Since 1997, Multnomah County has lost more than 26,000 private-sector jobs.
All of which raises the possibility that Portland, in attracting young creatives coming for the lifestyle, and not for jobs or earning potential, has attracted the wrong young creatives. Maybe the young creatives who are going to start new businesses and create jobs for others have settled in Seattle and San Francisco.
It’s possible, says Evan Jones, who estimates that four out of 10 of his social circle in Portland are underemployed — working at jobs typically below their education level. Some, he says, are stuck at “dead-end clerical jobs” and can’t find employment that matches their education, but stay because those jobs allow them to live and enjoy Portland’s lifestyle amenities.
Others, like him, are underemployed by choice.
Which isn’t to say Jones is devoid of a sense of the traditional ambition he eschews. He isn’t sure how he and his friends will feel when, for example, some of them decide to start families after having disregarded careers in their 20s and 30s.
He’s enjoying his on-again, off-again lifestyle for now, but wondering.
“My simultaneous fear is that we’ll all look back 10 years from now and find we were in the middle of an aesthetic experiment,” he says.
No desk jobs
Daniel Casto, Jones’ roommate, says he knows plenty of unambitious people in Portland. Casto, 23, moved to Portland a little more than two months ago from Ohio. He’s been working as a waiter/cook/counter person at a Vietnamese sandwich shop. So far, his English degree hasn’t translated into a better- paying job.
Casto is convinced there is some self-selection taking place among the educated young who move to Portland.
“I know plenty of young people who are all very excited about their real-life jobs at desks doing things,” he says. “Those aren’t the young people moving to Portland.”
Portland has the perfect setup for lifestyle-oriented young people, according to Casto.
“The thing about moving here is, why would you want to work at a desk all day when you can come here and live very happily on $1,500 a month, eating the best food you’ve ever eaten and hanging out at the coolest bars?” he asks.
Casto says that traditional ambition even carries a social stigma among Portland’s young creatives. He and Jones agree that talking about a business degree in an eastside bar would be “really uncool.”
“If I’m going out to meet people socially, I don’t play up the idea that I’m trying to be industrious and find a super good job,” Casto says.
A few entrepreneurs
In fact, the PSU study reveals that the young creatives moving to Portland have a disproportionate number of liberal arts degrees, and a lack of business degrees.
Local economist Joe Cortright, who for years has been a promoter of the young creatives-as-economic-engine theory, isn’t worried about all this. In fact, Cortright says the new PSU study is all good news. He’s still banking on the educated migrants, and he doesn’t think they are particularly unambitious or lazy.
Cortright says Portland has a higher than average rate of people working or looking for work. It also has a high rate of people, such as Casto, working below their education level. But Cortright says that’s a plus because employers here don’t have to dumb down their jobs as much.
Eventually, Cortright says, Portland’s growing pool of underemployed educated workers will convince companies to relocate here.
As for the possibility that Portland’s young college graduates aren’t ambitious, Cortright points to the city’s high self-employment rate — 9 percent compared to 6 percent nationally for young people.
Portland is full of “lifestyle entrepreneurs,” Cortright says. The food cart industry is a prime example. He calls food carts “the very best business incubator I have ever seen. It lets people try out ideas at very low cost and at very low risk.”
And Cortright isn’t concerned about the possibility that Portland’s cooking school graduates are choosing to open food carts, which generally employ one or two people, while in other cities they might be dreaming of opening restaurants that employ dozens.
“It is really only a few entrepreneurs who are going to create the big job-creating firms,” Cortright says. “You never know who they are, so you have to have an environment where it’s really easy for lots of them to try out ideas.”
It’s also really easy for lots of them to enjoy a good life at relatively little expense, says Dillon Mahmoudi, who co-created the Badass index and map. Badass rates Portland neighborhoods for the type of unique qualities that make the city appealing to young creatives — pinball machines, food carts and access to bike lanes among them.
High ratings on the index correlate with an inexpensive lifestyle. That wasn’t intentional, Mahmoudi says, but might have been inevitable.
“When you move to Portland, you change your lifestyle,” he says. “What you need is far less.”
Mahmoudi and his wife moved during the recession from Austin, Texas, where both had solid jobs, to Portland, where they had no immediate prospects. Now she’s got a job and he’s a grad student at PSU, they sold their car and bought backyard chickens, and they “feel so much richer,” according to Mahmoudi.
Friends from Austin and Atlanta have visited, and one couple is moving here under similar circumstances next week. A second couple will arrive in January. They’ve seen what many other young creatives have discovered, Mahmoudi says.
“Ambition isn’t only whether or not I’m going to start a company,” he says. “I am seeking a better life for myself.”
Living on less might be feasible, or even admirable, for Portland’s young creatives, but it has a price tag for everyone else, says economist John Tapogna, president of ECONorthwest. When people find cheaper lifestyles, it still doesn’t cost any less to maintain schools or a police force. But tax revenue for those institutions drops.
ECONorthwest has been hired by the Portland Business Alliance to study why the city’s college-educated residents earn less than counterparts in other cities. It could be lifestyle choices, or it simply could be not enough jobs to go around.
One theory, Tapogna says, has it that car-sharing, bike commuting and collective living are all part of a large-scale, new emphasis on less materialistic living among young adults. If Millennials truly are the cheapest generation, as a number of economists have suggested, Portland’s young creatives might not become the job creators on whom the city has been banking.
Meanwhile, Claire Cummings is set to arrive in Portland Sept. 21. Cummings, a San Diego native, knows all about Portland after having spent four years at Lewis & Clark College. She graduated last year, couldn’t find the right job here, and moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked 70 hours and more each week creating a food policy council for Montgomery County, Md.
Cummings, 23, characterizes herself as “very ambitious and career-driven.” Yet she’s moving back to Portland for the lifestyle, the shorter work week and what she calls “the value system.” She’s found a two-year fellowship from a Palo Alto-based company that will allow her to research food policy issues while living here.
Cummings is looking forward to getting back to her favorite Portland coffee shops and the rock gym for workouts. And she’s certain, despite the city’s seductiveness, that she isn’t going to lose her drive.
“Here’s why,” Cummings says. “I love my job, and I love that the company cares about my well-being. I don’t think I’m going to be any less ambitious by being in Portland. I think I will be happier being in Portland.”
by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Engineer Evan Jones (top) relaxes while getting some computer work done in his yard, practicing what he calls 'pretirement.' He wonders if Portland's young creatives have lost, or redefined, ambition.
The key thing to understand about Evan Jones is that he doesn’t lack ambition. It only looks like he does.
by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Dillon and Jenny Mahmoudi chose a frugal Portland lifestyle, complete with backyard chickens, over steady incomes in Austin, Texas. Dillon co-created the Badass map, which ranks Portland neighborhoods based on their access to unique (and inexpensive) lifestyle amenities enjoyed by young adults in Portland.
by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Daniel Casto, a recent arrival from Ohio, takes full advantage of Portland's night life. Casto's part-time job at a sandwich shop supports his Portland lifestyle as he searches for better work and applies to grad schools this fall.
by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Millennials enjoy Portland's music scene while dancing on stage to Girl Talk in Pioneer Square last week during MusicfestNW. An abundance of free and cheap entertainment has served the city in attracting young, college-educated migrants and a new PSU study shows they are staying, so far, despite earning less than they would elsewhere.