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Is Portland Really Where Young People Retire?

PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland may not be “a city where young people go to retire,” but it’s the place they go to be underemployed, a new study found.

A famous quip by Fred Armisen on the television show “Portlandia” led Portland State University researchers to investigate the reality behind the comment.

The quirky IFC network series pokes fun at the Oregon city’s many eccentricities.

The researchers’ review found that Portland is a magnet for the young and college educated from across the country, even though a disproportionate share of them are working part-time or holding jobs that don’t require a degree.

In short, young college grads are moving here, and staying, because they like the city’s amenities and culture, not because they’re chasing jobs. Their participation in the labor force tracks with other cities, but they make 84 cents on the dollar when compared to the average of the 50 largest metropolitan areas, the research found.

“You put all of that together, and it suggests that young people are coming here and they’re trying to make the best of it,” said Greg Schrock, an assistant professor in urban studies at Portland state. “They’re committed to working, they’re committed to trying to make ends meet, but they’re more committed to living in Portland.”

Young people are drawn by a relatively low cost of living, a vibrant arts scene and a collegial, laid-back atmosphere. With abundant public transit, a vibrant bicycle culture and many walkable neighborhoods, there’s no need for a car.

“I’m pretty content being able to support myself on a minimum-wage job,” said Deanna Horton, 22, who graduated in May from Lewis & Clark college in Portland and is now working the front desk at a science museum. Horton doesn’t have a driver’s license, but she said the only time she’s ever felt she needed one was when she moved across town.

A transplant from Syosset, N.Y., on Long Island, Horton said she’d love to have a more challenging and fulfilling job but not enough to give up on a city that supports things like a neighborhood tool library, which gives residents free access to a wide variety of tools for carpentry, home improvement and gardening.

“I feel like my job prospects in other places would be really good,” she said, looking over the top of her Apple computer at the popular Stumptown Coffee. “But I don’t want to try.”

Portland’s reputation as the place young people go to retire was cemented with a sketch on “Portlandia.”

The Portland State researchers studied Census data from 1980 to 2010 with a focus on young people, ages 21 to 39, with a college degree. They found that the migration of those people to Portland had already begun in 1980 and was consistent throughout the 20-year span. Portland was the only major city that never saw a lull in migration, even during recessions.

The data suggest that young people continue flocking to Portland, in good times and in bad.

And they’re coming from places large and small. While young college graduates tend to move to larger metro areas, Portland had a net gain in migration from cities large and small.

The researchers found that Portland is indeed a popular place to retire. Not for young people, but for empty-nesters and retirees, whom Portland attracts and retains at a higher rate than similar cities.

But will it continue?

The researchers don’t know for sure. Portland clearly has a powerful draw for the young graduates, but the cost of living that makes it possible for them to live here may not continue forever. The rental vacancy rate has plummeted, so rent is rising, and not everyone is willing to live in a place with a weak labor market.

“There’s a very select group of migrants that would be able to work through those challenges financially,” said Jason Jurjevich, an assistant professor of urban studies.

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