Even while San Francisco’s economy is booming, people are restless to leave

Not everyone is choosing to stay in The City and Silicon Valley.

San Francisco had a net domestic out-migration of residents as did most Silicon Valley counties, between July 2017 to July 2018, according to the Joint Venture 2019 report. “For the third year in a row, people are moving out of Silicon Valley nearly as quickly as they are moving in,” the report said. The region gained 62,000 foreign immigrants and lost 64,000 to other parts of California and the United States.

On the other hand, the Department of Finance estimated that San Francisco added 6,500 residents, and California added 200,000 new residents during the same time frame. But no matter the exact numbers, one thing is clear: residents are thinking about leaving, and many of them are acting on their wishes.

One analysis about the migration patterns of Californians comes from a survey done by Edelman Intelligence in January 2019. It showed that more than half the 1,500 survey respondents were considering moving out of the state due to high cost of living. What’s even more perturbing is that 63 percent of millennials in the state were looking at other destinations to settle down.

The Joint Venture analysis, however, accounts for two-fifths of San Francisco residents being of prime working age — between 25 and 44 years old — which includes millennials. This share of the working age population is far higher than nationwide numbers (29 percent).

San Francisco, as any city, continually redefines who comes, who stays and who goes, based on economic and social factors. The large number of young and middle aged people living in San Francisco is likely a response to the demands of the labor and housing markets, as well as the immigrant-friendly policies of The City and state.

One in three persons (35.6 percent) in San Francisco is foreign born; and 44 percent speak a foreign language at home, apart from English, with Chinese being the most prevalent.

There are more people with at least a bachelor’s degree in The City (58 percent) than in California (34 percent) or the nation (32 percent). San Francisco residents with a graduate or professional degree earn $80,000 more than those with less than a high school diploma.

The City is responding to its inflow in particular ways. The highly-skilled nature of San Franciscans can be seen in The City’s job growth and funding.

The unemployment rate in San Francisco is down to 2.2 percent. “We’re an economy at full employment, and yet we continue adding jobs,” the JV report summarized. There was a 3.4 percent of growth of jobs in 2018. The per capita personal income in The City is twice as high as all of California. And venture capital funding hit an all-time high of $31 billion in 2018.

The rosy economy is reflected throughout the Silicon Valley. And yet, the numbers of people coming in to The City are declining and the numbers of people leaving are rising.

Take the case of 23-year-old Andrew Scolnic who graduated from New York University with a degree in economics, moved to San Francisco and has been sharing an apartment in Russian Hill for the last year. Scolnic is ready to move back to the east coast. Besides job opportunities opening up in New York City, Scolnic lists the lack of a social network, with his family and friends who are a half-a-day plane ride away, as being the significant factor driving his desire to move away from San Francisco.

“I underestimated not how much I’d miss my family and friends, but how frustrating it is to make new friends and how hard it is without any network,” he said.

“How about cost of living?” I asked Scolnic. “It’s less about the cost of living and more about that combined with a lack of network,” he explained. Rents are high, sure, he said, “and then you go out for lunch and worry about the prices. But then you look around and realize that one-third of the people living around you make enough money that they probably rarely worry about what the lunch prices are today,” he remarked.

Scolnic’s reasons for leaving San Francisco are exactly what other millennials surveyed by Edelman must be considering.

Our city is able to quickly absorb the rich, educated or upwardly mobile, but not the less-educated or the more creative among us. City and business policies should aim to create a welcoming environment for all: teachers as well as lawyers, restaurant workers as well as venture capitalists, and native San Franciscans as well as foreign-born immigrants.

Even as the economy is flourishing, the JV report reveals how San Francisco is becoming less economically diverse and I’m reminded of Armistead Maupin’s words from “Tales of the City:”

“What about San Francisco?”

“What about it?”

“Did you like it?”

She shrugged. “It was O.K.”

“Just O.K.?”

She laughed. “Good God!”


“You’re all alike here.”

Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan

Jaya Padmanabhan
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Jaya Padmanabhan

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