Selling Out to Stick Around?

By Hanna Brooks Olsen
Photos by Hannah Letinich

Acres of proverbial ink have been spilled parsing the nuances of my generation. Depending on who you ask, we’re either lazy, entitled, and waiting, palms up, for our participation trophies, or we’re going to save the planet with our empathy and generosity. We’re saddled with debt, we’re under-employed, and yes, some of us moved back to our parent’s houses—but only because the housing market crashed and burned before we could even graduate from college.

We are the largest generation ever. We are not, contrary to the assertions of many a thinkpiece, a monolith. Much like the non-millennials (you know, everyone else), those of us who live in the Seattle area are a little different than the rest of the country. We like the outdoors. We bend left, politically speaking. And we’re facing our own Pacific Northwest struggles, including (but not limited to) income inequality and housing affordability. Sure, some of us are raking it in, thanks to the tech boom, while others are fleeing in search of cheaper housing.

But that’s about where the local data stopped. Despite a mountain of anecdotal evidence that would eclipse Mount Rainier, there’s been a dearth of salient information about what, exactly, makes Seattle great (or not-so-great) for Millennials.

Called the Livability Survey for Puget Sound Millennials, Forterra worked with EMC Research to talk to nearly 1,200 local young people between the age of 20 and 35 both online and over the phone. Chiefly, Forterra wanted to get a better understanding of the role of tech and tech culture, the differences between old-timers and newcomers, what draws millennials to Seattle, and what keeps them here.

This survey showed one conclusive trend in local millennials, no matter what they do for a living: We are not the aloof, entitled, shallow generation that’s been depicted in the media. We care deeply about corporate responsibility, we’re interested in learning more, and we know what we want when it comes to work and play. We believe in science and reason and tolerance and inclusion—all of which are important traits in policy-makers and innovators.

– Hanna Brooks Olsen, 30

Photo by: Hannah Letinich

Though it may feel like Amazon workers are taking over, the survey found that only 10% of area millennials work in tech. Still, data from the City of Seattle estimates that 200 new residents move to the city every day. People of all generations feel a surge.

This isn’t the first generation to weather a tech boom in Seattle—the Almost Live sketch “Studs from Microsoft” is a time capsule from the wave of newcomers in the 80s and 90s—but local millennials are grappling with a new and complicated set of circumstances. Specifically, affordability, debt, and the existential question of where they want to live—and where they can live.

Despite the stigma of “selling out,” most millennials understand that making the leap from a nonprofit or another lower-paying job to work in tech is a survival mechanism, not an admission of changing ideologies. “I have a lot of friends in Seattle who I used to work with in social justice or non-profit sector who have gone on to work for Amazon for financial reasons,” says DJ Martinez. Martinez, 30, is an audio producer, comedian, and member of the LGBTQ and Latinx communities. He’s spent considerable time at Standing Rock with the Two Spirit Nation and is active in the No New Youth Jail movement. He moved here from the Bay area but doesn’t work in tech—and says the changes in Seattle look very familiar. The truth is, tech jobs pay well, and, if you can get one, you’ve got a lot more options about where and how to live.

I see all the small things that are newer here that were new to me in the Bay before it all took over. It starts with those tech company shuttles, then ridiculous gimmicky stores/restaurants replacing long-time local businesses, then newcomers who were either too afraid to come to the area before or are ignorant of the history of where they are.

– DJ Martinez, 30

Photo by: Hannah Letinich

Almost all of the survey respondents want to stay in the area. All things told, 88% of millennials want to stay in the city—though nearly half said they weren’t sure they’d be able to do so. Most of them are on the same page, though, when it comes to the big picture things.

“We all want the same thing: Prosperity for ourselves and our loved ones, safe healthy and vibrant communities, rich culture, and to enjoy the beauty of this area,” says Alex Hudson, 32, the Director of the First Hill Improvement Association who has lived on First Hill for the better part of a decade.

Survey participants of all stripes agreed that the economic system isn’t fair, though tech workers tend to have more faith in it than their non-tech peers. In many ways, this pessimism is well founded. There are plenty of economic factors—like the rising cost of housing, the high student debt millennials hold, and wages that haven’t kept up with those of previous generations—which contribute to a difficult economic outlook for the under-35 crowd.

Despite these unfavorable economic factors that pose a threat to millennials, millennials are much more likely than older generations to cite social justice and racial diversity among their top concerns. Not only do millennials care more about inclusion and diversity than previous generations, but they also see the links between different issues more sharply defined. Whereas older generations didn’t mention inequality and racism as a top concern, millennials did—along with affordable housing, homelessness, and education.

Despite the stigma of “selling out,” most millennials understand that making the leap from a nonprofit or another lower-paying job to work in tech is a survival mechanism, not an admission of changing ideologies.

This matches what I’ve found anecdotally, too. In personal conversations and at council meetings, millennials often emphasize intersectionality in their approach to civil issues. We see the intersection of race, class, gender identity, sexuality, immigration status, and disability status as crucial to solving problems like housing affordability, whereas constituents from older generations take a more siloed approach, addressing economic, social, and environmental issues independently.

Issues of gentrification also loom large. Despite rising costs in the Puget Sound region, survey respondents said they still consider their values when looking to move. When asked to rank the considerations that should be made when new housing is being built, they expressed a strong desire to avoid displacement of existing communities in the interest of social justice—even though the reality of this could mean living with high rent costs long term.

“I’m hoping to live here for the rest of my life, however, that continues to be dependent on how much rents and home prices rise,” says Marcus Harrison Green, a 35-year-old Seattle native who worked in hedge funds in California before moving back (into his mother’s basement) to start a local news website called the South Seattle Emerald. “I can afford to stay here at the moment, though,” he says, despite the touch-and-go nature of funding a media outlet through investors, ads, and memberships.

Photo by: Hannah Letinich

Millennials are thinkers and doers and frankly, are not very optimistic—that rings especially true when it comes to their role in climate change. Over half of survey-takers said they believe humans can reduce global warming but don’t believe humans will do what’s needed to combat it—in fact, 34% said they don’t think people are willing to change their behavior to make it happen. Across the board, millennials believe in their power to influence things on a local level, but have much less faith in the structure of systems to make change.

What’s behind millennial’s cynicism? It could be the fact that as a generation, they haven’t seen a good model of progress on this subject. Millennials are the most educated and least compensated generation, with debt up to their eyeballs and a housing market that’s outpaced earnings. As one respondent summarized, “no generation has ever been so completely and utterly screwed by the previous one.”

Sure, local millennials have a lot on our plate—getting priced out, stagnated wages, and generally feeling like they don’t have the support they need—but they also have shown that in the face of that, they’ll still be driven. Millennials have turned out for movements like Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, and the resistance of the new presidential administration. They drove social media campaigns that raised record donations for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. They’ve even used our phones to make actual calls to our local elected officials.

Mobilizing millennial’s passion and commitment to social equality and the environment (and especially connecting the dots between the two) could create a powerhouse of a movement—particularly if they can come together across the things that divide them and embrace what they have in common.

More about the Livability Survey of Puget Sound Millennials

We all want the same thing: Prosperity for ourselves and our loved ones, safe healthy and vibrant communities, rich culture, and to enjoy the beauty of this area. I caution against this idea that promotes divisions between who this city belongs to, who contributes the most, and how we are entitled to any particular place.

– Alex Hudson, 32

Photo by: Hannah Letinich
  • Hanna Brooks Olsen

    Hanna Brooks Olsen is a long-time writer and reporter in Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Nation, the Atlantic, GOOD, Slate, Seattle Met, and the Huffington Post. She adopted her dog 10 years ago and they are very much in love.