Is Portland really Portlandia?
Author: Meg DesCamp
Posted: February 4, 2013

In the hit television show, the young, hip, and unambitious find a home in Portland. Two PSU professors pit fiction against fact.

Remember when people were content to be unambitious, sleep until eleven, just hang out with their friends, had no occupations whatsoever?

I thought that died out a long time ago.

Not in Portland. Portland is a city where young people go to retire.

- "Dream of the 90s," Portlandia sketch

Sara Tunstall MBA '10 (front and center) moved to Portland without a job, but unlike the characters in Portlandia, her work ethic moved with her. She now owns Spooltown, a sewing factory where she employs 13 full-time workers. Photo by Kelly James.

Portlandia, the wildly popular and Peabody Award-winning IFC network television show, has burned a certain image of Portland into pop culture: a city filled with transplanted hipsters who can't decide between making jewelry or applying to grad school; who have made the annual Allergy Pride Parade a well-attended event; who proudly serve food retrieved from dumpsters. Gainful employment? It just gets in the way of a lifestyle that is Portland.

This begs the question: Could fiction be fact and Portland really be the city where young people go to retire, as the show claims?

Yes and no, say Jason Jurjevich and Greg Schrock, PSU Urban Studies and Planning faculty, who were inspired to look past the stereotypes for solid data.

They examined the migration patterns of college-educated young people (a group they affectionately call YCEs) in 50 metropolitan areas from 1980 to 2010. In that timeframe, Portland consistently attracted and maintained an extremely high rate of YCEs. "This holds true regardless of economic conditions," says Jurjevich. "Some metro areas only attract YCEs during good economic times. We have a 'brain gain' occurring in Portland even in economic downturns."

At first glance, the two professors' research appears to support the Portlandia stereotype: Portland YCEs scored high for self-, part-time, and no employment at all compared to other metro areas. In addition, wages in Portland for YCEs were among the lowest.

"However, that high rate of part-time employment is not semi-retirement," says Schrock. "That is a coping strategy."

Jurjevich and Schrock conclude that young professionals don't come to Portland to retire, but they don't come expecting to get rich, either. They are committed to Portland and to all the city has to offer: cultural diversity, natural beauty, and a progressive political and social climate. Essentially, Portlanders earn—and cherish—a second paycheck that consists of a thriving performing arts scene and easy access to the ocean and the mountains.

Sara Tunstall MBA '10 could not be further from the retiring-young-person stereotype. However, the beginning of her story could make a good Portlandia sketch.

Originally from western Massachusetts, Tunstall earned her bachelor's in analytical chemistry with a pre-med focus but decided not to enter medical school. Shortly after graduation, she says, "I sold my stuff, packed my trunk with camping gear, and took off with my dog."

After camping her way across the country to Northern California, she headed up the coast to Portland. "I didn't have any close friends in Portland. But I was in search of adventure, and I found a place that greeted newcomers with open arms."

Tunstall floundered, as she put it, for a year or two, and then landed a position as shipping manager for a local toy manufacturer. After five years, she found work at a local handbag and accessories manufacturer Queen Bee Creations. She managed production for Queen Bee while she earned an MBA at PSU, and then established her own sewing factory, Spooltown, which now employs 13 people full time in the same building as Queen Bee.

"We do Queen Bee's production sewing and work with about 30 other clients on design, product development, and production sewing," says Tunstall. "I spend my days championing the revitalization of American manufacturing."

Artists often come to Spooltown with an idea for a project but no practical experience on how to get it to market. Tunstall prides herself on helping new businesses get started. Her MBA training helps.

When asked about the Portlandia stereotype, Tunstall says, "Portland is often ridiculed as a city of dreamers without goals, but a lot of us work our butts off. Portlanders are viewed as being at the forefront of trends and ideas. Maybe it's because we're a little weird; we're not afraid to be on the cutting edge."

Jurjevich and Schrock aren't done focusing on Tunstall and her age group. "We've uncovered a number of interesting follow-up research questions we'd like to explore," says Jurjevich. Stay tuned for more news about Portland's young creative class and their attempts to craft fulfilling professional and personal lives.

The real Portland

Pop culture has branded Portland as a haven for the hip and unambitious. Professors Jason Jurjevich and Greg Schrock decided to explore the facts. Do young, college-educated people (under the age of 40, and referred to as "YCEs") really move here without jobs? Are they actually content to just hang out? Or are they seeking meaningful work? Jurjevich and Schrock analyzed data going back to 1980, and then compared the numbers with 50 other metropolitan areas. Here's what they found:

Is Portland a city where young people go to retire, as depicted in the sketch comedy show, Portlandia? Photo Danielle Mathias/IFC.

  • YCEs move to the Portland area and stay here in higher numbers than other metro areas.
  • Since 2000, the unemployment rate for Portland YCEs is among the five highest in the United States.
  • One in five Portland YCEs worked 35 hours a week or less between 2008 and 2010—the highest part-time rate in the 50 metro areas studied.
  • One in three Portland YCEs held jobs that did not require a bachelor's degree, making the local occupational underemployment rate slightly higher than the national average.
  • Portland YCEs consistently earn 90 percent or less of their counterparts' wages in the other metro areas, even when adjusted for cost of living.
  • Nearly 90 percent of Portland YCEs were either working or looking for work between 2008 and 2010.
  • Finally, Portland's YCEs consistently have one of the country's highest self-employment rates. "That's a good news/bad news scenario," says Schrock. "People create work that suits them, but it's often more precarious than traditional employment."

To learn more about the study, visit the website

Meg DesCamp is a Portland freelance writer.