Would You Rather Be Poor and Happy in Portland or Rich and Miserable in New York?

by Derek Loosvelt | September 17, 2014

  • My Vault

Although there are few job opportunities in Portland, Oregon, and its skies are gray more often than they're blue, unemployed young people keep moving to the city in significant numbers. According to the New York Times (and to handful of friends of mine who've migrated to the Pacific in recent years), the reason they go west is for the natural beauty and easier-going lifestyle. That is, no one's moving there for work or money.

David Albouy, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, has created a metric, the sacrifice measure, which essentially charts how poor a person is willing to be in order to live in a particular city. Portland, he discovered, is near the top of the list. Even when college-educated residents get jobs there, they earn 84 cents for the average dollar earned in other cities, according to Greg Schrock and Jason Jurjevich, professors of urban studies at Portland State University. In 41 of the country’s 50 largest cities, young, educated people earn more than they do in Portland. “It’s a buyer’s market for labor,” Schrock says.

Of course, there are some gainful jobs to be had in Portland outside of artisan pickle wholesalers, pour-over coffee shops, locally sourced restaurants, and organic breweries. Companies like Nike and Adidas are two formidable name-brand employers in the area. And there are a handful of midsized tech-related employers in the area as well (such as Mentor Graphics, Reynolds, and KLA-Tencor). If you're in the education business, Clark College, Reed College, Washington State, and Portland State are typically hiring, too.

Still, Portland's not a place where young people flock to make millions. In fact (or, at least, according to the Times), it's become a beloved place to "semiretire."

Portland's paradox is that it attracts so many of "the young and the restless," as demographers call them, that it has become a city of the overeducated and underemployed—a place where young people are, in many cases, forced into their semiretirement. A July report by the Oregon Employment Department fretted about the state’s low personal income and employment-to-population ratio. The average income of Oregonians in recent years "may have been a 'victim' of the state's attractiveness, and a resulting population influx" by new residents who don’t earn much, the report said.

Another reason young people flock to the city, according to Albouy, has to do with a shift in America's culture.

"As our culture and expectations grow, decadence rises. We're not the hungry immigrant nation we used to be. We’re more into meaning, into jobs that find fulfillment. And at least some people are willing to accept lower pay to go somewhere they care about."

I admit that I've also thought about moving to Portland more than once in the past few years. And I know many other New Yorkers—who continually find it more and more difficult to keep pace with rising rents, home prices, and school costs, not to mention the competitive job market—who've considered it as well. A slower-paced, easier-going, greener lifestyle certainly sounds enticing when I'm on the Q train jam-packed alongside hundreds of other outer-borough rush-hour commuters. But then, when I get back to Brooklyn, I usually start to wonder how I'd pay for all those fancy pickles, pour-overs, dinners, and beersand soon I drop my great western-migration dreams.

Follow me @VaultFinance.

Read More:
Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young? (NYT)
Detroit: The City of Opportunity for the Class of 2014 (Vault)

Filed Under: Finance | Job Search

Tags: meaning vs. money | new york city | nike | portland | portlandia

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