IN any metropolitan area, there is a sort of story about who the residents are and what the region wants to be. Much of that narrative in Seattle is optimistic: In keeping with the spirit of the Pacific Northwest, we see ourselves as pioneers, pushing the boundaries with innovation, from coffee to biotech to Internet commerce.
The self-image is not without merit. Seattle now ranks fifth among the nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas in its demand for highly educated workers. Our working-age population is growing nearly twice as fast as the national average, putting us in prime position to attract new businesses and stir economic vitality.
We are quickly becoming demographically diverse, a feature that tends to attract younger residents: People of color accounted for 93 percent of net increase in population over the past decade, and by 2040, the region will be so-called “majority-minority,” meaning people of color will outnumber white people.
While the metro region as a whole ranks high in terms of the skills and diversity needed to propel an economy forward, these assets are not evenly distributed and this can put the metropolitan future at peril.
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We’ve been looking at Seattle for our work with The Generations Initiative, an effort to help metropolitan regions anticipate and effectively manage demographic change as their populations age and diversify. Based on an extensive data analysis and a wide-ranging set of interviews, we see three particular challenges for the region.
The first is that Seattle depends on attracting people from outside. Newcomers account for most of our net growth — at a rate more than twice the national average. This strong in-migration continues, but its pace is slowing and its source is shifting. In the ’80s and ’90s, 41 percent of the net increase in Seattle population was attributable to a U.S.-born population from other states, and only 11 percent of growth was from people born outside the U.S. By 2000-2010 those numbers reversed, with 14 percent of growth coming from U.S.-born people from other states, and 41 percent from immigration.
The second challenge is that we lag behind other metros in educating our homegrown people. Washington ranks fifth from the bottom among states in the percent of high-school graduates who enroll in postsecondary education immediately after high school.
Our relatively high education-attainment rates instead come from our success in attracting well-educated people from outside our state. Forty-four percent of our newcomers born out of state and 39 percent of our immigrants have a bachelor’s or higher degree, versus 30 percent of the population born here.
The third challenge is that our governance structures, civic institutions and social-service infrastructures need updating. Much of our population growth is in our suburbs and outlying areas. People move between jurisdictions for housing, work, entertainment and services yet our governance structures and resources follow fixed boundaries. Our ability to build a strong sense of a shared, regional identity is undercut by these boundaries, not to mention a challenging geography of water, bridges and traffic jams.
In short, we’re not living up to the image we have of ourselves. We do get valuable diversity from our global recruitment for talent — but we should not assume an unlimited ability to import skilled workers from outside.
Moreover, our interviews indicate that while the young adults moving here for jobs value the cultural amenities (such as restaurants) that diversity brings, they often do not experience diverse residential neighborhoods or high-quality public schools serving diverse children. This is partly due to the fact that we are not providing adequate pathways to success for our homegrowns.
So how do we both improve opportunity for our increasingly diverse homegrown population and retain well-educated in-migrants who have moved here for employment? We think the following actions might contribute to a new Seattle story:
Let’s expand education efforts such as The Road Map Project, which won a federal Race to the Top education grant, and career academies to connect homegrown young people to the economic clusters that power the region — manufacturing, technology and health care. IBM has a P-tech program that creates a direct pipeline between high school, college and IBM. Why not a Microsoft version?
We should aggressively implement efforts to reduce racial disparities, building on the city’s and county’s pioneering racial-equity impact statements.
It’s time to expand development programs such as Leadership Tomorrow to engage talented young adults born both inside and outside the region.
Take actions that stitch us together as a region rather than a fragmented set of city and county governments. This will involve accelerating efforts to promote transportation that moves people efficiently and affordably from where they live to where they work and create housing that integrates singles, seniors and families across economic lines.
We need to solidify the sense of a common future. Demographic change is occurring, but it is not evenly distributed: 73 percent of Seattle’s seniors are white while 43 percent of the region’s youth are people of color. To ensure that everyone sees an interwoven destiny, we need to strengthen bridging institutions that build contact and empathy among peoples and generations who are different — such as public libraries, museums, festivals, public parks and interfaith organizing.
After all, the pioneers may have celebrated individualism but they also knew the value of community. Creating a Seattle that encourages young professionals who move here to stay and expands opportunity for all our young people will require our best thinking and our best efforts.
And doing this together can help our region live up to its promise and point the way for other metropolitan areas to follow.
Hilary Pennington is director of Seattle’s Generations Initiative and former director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Manuel Pastor is professor of sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.