Overextended and underemployed in creative-class Xanadu is probably not how many hipsters envisioned their post-collegiate years, but such is the sobering reality for many of them.
Portland, Oregon has added a new sound to the familiar patter of raindrops and whoosh of espresso-machine steam wands: the slap of thousands of Vans and Converse on pavement as newly transplanted hipsters search for work.
The May 16 edition of The Wall Street Journal includes reporter Connor Dougherty’s story on chic emigres to perennial slacktopias like Portland and Austin, Texas, whose job markets, tight in the best of times, trouble free spirits’ dreams with unpleasant economic realities. Dougherty writes:
This drizzly city along the Willamette River [Portland] has for years been among the most popular urban magnets for college graduates looking to start their careers in a small city of like-minded folks. Now the jobs are drying up, but the people are still coming. The influx of new residents is part of the reason the unemployment rate in the Portland metropolitan area has more than doubled to 11.8% over the past year, and is now above the national average of 8.9%.
Portland and similar cities, whose local vibes appeal to a largely educated, white, and fashion-forward set, stand as bellwethers for the ongoing proletarianization of … well … just about everyone. Skinny jeans, Drew-Carey glasses and complicated hair are, it seems, no hedge against indigence. Dougherty continues:
Some new arrivals are burning through their savings as they hunt for jobs that no longer exist. Some are returning home. Others are settling for low-paying jobs they are overqualified for.
Overextended and underemployed in creative-class Xanadu is probably not how many hipsters envisioned their post-collegiate years, but such is the sobering reality for many of them. Which can come as nothing but good news for local employers, who stand to acquire specialized labor at bargain-basement wages, as well as for landlords, the ultimate winners in all such demographic trends.
For city administrators, however, the story is quite different. As more transplants find no place to ply their trade, the queue for the dole grows longer. Remarkably, officials remain largely sanguine with respect to this issue. “Portland isn’t discouraging the young and educated from coming,” Dougherty writes:
though the glut of workers puts more stress on city services. One of the most important factors in a city’s economic success is the education level of its work force, says Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser. Cities such as Detroit and Cleveland that have exported college graduates in recent years are trying to retain them with everything from internship programs to building artists’ lofts.
“I’m hopeful people will stick around,” says Portland mayor Sam Adams. “Even if they come to my city without a job, it is still an economic plus.”
Both destination and departure cities, apparently heeding Richard Florida’s auguries, are keen on retaining their youth, and are in fact trying to devise ways of bringing modish Meccas to their restive young Turks. (One wonders how successful some cities will prove at this; the bumper-sticker slogan, “Keep Toledo weird,” lacks a certain zest.)
Hipsters’ situations in “youth magnet” cities haven’t entirely been all Steinbeckian privation and dearth. The influx of jazzy Gen-Y’ers has certainly enhanced the cultural allure of these cities. Again Dougherty:
The inflow of young college grads helped change Portland’s economy over the past two decades. Most notably, it contributed to an increase in the fraction of Oregon workers with college degrees to 28.3% in 2007 (above the national average of 27.5%) from 19.5% in 1990 (below the national average of 21.3%), according to Moody’s Economy.com. Of course, some of that increase came from older educated migrants, as well as homegrown college graduates.
Portland’s culture and businesses have come to reflect the city’s youthful edge. Among U.S. metro areas with more than a million people, only Seattle — another magnet for the young and educated — has more coffee shops per capita than Portland, according to NPD Group. Roughly 8% of Portlanders commute regularly by bike, the highest proportion of any major U.S. city and about 10 times the national average, according to Boulder, Colo., bike-advocacy group Bikes Belong.
Indeed, so compelling have many twentysomethings found the allure of these hipsteropolises that they often throw caution to the wind and strike out on the postmodern tramp in search of drizzling, boreal vistas. “For Brian DeGrush, 28, it’s a visit he paid to the city two years ago to see friends,” Dougherty continues:
He says he loved the social life and the green landscape, and when he went back about a month ago with his girlfriend, it was to scout out jobs and neighborhoods to live in. On Saturday, he graduates from the MBA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but hasn’t yet found a job.
If he doesn’t find work soon, Mr. DeGrush says he and his girlfriend will probably just move to Portland over the summer and hope for the best. “We’re debating just trying to find part-time stuff and scrounging by until something more permanent opens up,” he says.
We at Generation Bubble are heartened by this contemporary expression of the very can-do attitude that made America great, and we delight in imagining great caravans of fixed-gear bicycles crossing valley and plain on their way to a manifest destiny of occasional employment, inadequate health coverage, warmed-over indie rock and crowded brew pubs.
Go West, young men and women!
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