Editor's Choice

Slacker security

Generation Bubble points to this WSJ article about "youth magnet cities" like Portland, and the lack of jobs therein. The story's opening salvo reminded me strongly of when I was young and utterly clueless about the economy, as though it didn't really apply to me, as if I were exempt:

In October, as the stock market tanked and the economy shed 400,000 jobs, Matt Singer moved from Oxnard, Calif. to Portland, Ore. He didn't have a job, but he was attracted to the city's offbeat culture and hungered for change. Mr. Singer's plan was to get an editing or writing gig at an alternative weekly newspaper, the job he was doing in California.

Seven months later, the 26-year-old is still without a steady job -- and still here. "I wasn't really aware of how bad the job situation was at the time," says Mr. Singer.

Not to go all reactionary here, but one can assume that Singer is unencumbered by such adult responsibilities as raising a family or caring for elderly parents and therefore can make life choices based on whims about where it might be cool to live. (I'm tempted to do the same sort of thing now and move to Europe.) And then the lifestyle choices reinforce the impossibility of ever assuming those adult responsibilities, because one is always too broke. Perhaps true hipster cities must always hover on the brink of economic irrelevance; too much success and opportunity might prompt hipsters to become yuppies, which are profoundly uncool, as anyone who has been through Park Slope in Brooklyn lately could attest. Economic opportunity ultimately means a chance to invest effort in something other than identity maintenance. For those who haven't found a way to commercialize cool, this means a chance to finally leave cool behind, however reluctantly.

But when one moves to an economically stagnant place like Portland, one is never confronted with this dilemma. This quote, from one of the twentysomethings interviewed for the story, sums up the sense of slacker security pretty succinctly: ""I know I'm underemployed and if it bothered me more, I guess I'd do more to change it."

So these cities may become stagnation valleys, economically speaking -- deadbeat magnets. But the inhabitants perhaps can feel as though they are liberated from the rat race and embracing bohemian values of creativity and environmental consciousness. I would love to embrace the idea that one can opt out of capitalistic ambitiousness and retreat into these urban oases of higher consciousness, only the intense self-consciousness of hipsterdom is so repellent. The ambitiousness has simply been displaced to a more parochial and pointless sphere, where the stakes are entirely personal and socially useless. Ordinary greed becomes a greed for attention, perfectly suitable for the so-called attention economy, which, unlike the real economy, seems to be thriving particularly in "youth magnet cities."

Generation Bubble's take is slightly different. Cities like Portland have managed to find a way to use cool to hoard educated labor that can then be sold for cheap.

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.

And meanwhile, as the WSJ article notes, the unemployed youth soak up city services and adopt a kind of laissez-faire approach to getting by.

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.

This prompts a priceless peroration from GB:

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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