Decade in demographics: Top 5 changes in the Seattle area

Seattle’s population has ballooned by 136,000 since 2010, hitting 745,000 last year.

  • Gene Balk / FYI Guy The Seattle Times
  • Monday, December 30, 2019 9:19am
  • Northwest

By Gene Balk / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — If you don’t like change, Seattle is probably the worst place to live in the country.

Perhaps more than any other major U.S. city, Seattle has been this decade’s demographic dynamo. While it’s been exciting to watch it unfold, it’s also been disorienting — and that’s particularly true for longtime residents.

Seattle has become more cosmopolitan and diverse, denser and more vibrant. Neighborhoods have been reborn, and no one could argue that the past decade has been a boom period.

The flip side is that Seattle has become more expensive and exclusive. It has gentrified at an alarming pace, and many poorer people have been pushed out of the city or into homelessness. And our transportation infrastructure hasn’t always kept pace with the growth.

With just days to go until 2020, this seems like a good time to look back at the biggest demographic stories of the decade. Here is my (highly subjective) Top 5:

1. Newcomers and record-breaking population growth

No. 1 is a no-brainer. It all started in 2013, when Seattle suddenly clocked in as the nation’s fastest-growing big city for the year, according to census data. And the breakneck speed of growth hasn’t let up. As of 2018 (the most recent data), Seattle is the fastest-growing major city of the decade, narrowly beating out Austin, Texas, for that distinction.

After 100 years of the suburbs growing at a faster rate than the city, Seattle reversed that trend this decade. Since our growth spurt began, roughly 50,000 people move to the city from outside of Washington every year. (Of course, people also leave Seattle, so the population doesn’t grow by 50,000 annually).

Seattle’s population has ballooned by 136,000 since 2010, hitting 745,000 last year. That pencils out to a growth rate of more than 22%, which is a staggering increase for a period of less than 10 years.

For some context, in the previous 30 years (from 1980 to 2010), Seattle’s population only grew by about 116,000.

2. Soaring incomes and cost of living

Tech wealth transformed Seattle this decade, making this one of the most expensive cities in the country. The median household income hit $93,500 last year, an increase of $33,000 since 2010. Only two other large cities surpassed us, also with tech-based economies: San Francisco and San Jose, California.

Housing prices went through the roof, but so did all sorts of other expenditures. According to the Cost of Living Index, living costs in Seattle rose from 35th highest among large U.S. cities in 2012 to sixth highest in 2018. According to the Index, housing costs here are more than double the national average. But we also rank near the top in every category of consumer expenditures.

3. Diversity on the Eastside

For all the demographic upheaval in Seattle this decade, the racial composition of the city’s population didn’t change all that much. Seattle has become modestly more racially diverse, with people of color comprising 37% of population in 2018, up from 34% in 2010. And the most diverse part of Seattle — the fast-gentrifying South End — actually became whiter.

On the Eastside, it’s a different story. Once characterized as homogeneous, mostly white suburbs, much of the Eastside has experienced rapid diversification. In Bellevue, King County’s second-largest city, people of color made up 34% of the population at the start of the decade, just as in Seattle. By 2018, people of color were in the majority, at 51%.

Redmond is diversifying just as rapidly. In fact, in 2018 — for the first time — people of color comprised the majority of the population in Microsoft’s hometown, at 52% (up from about 37% in 2010).

In both Bellevue and Redmond, the Asian populations grew the fastest, but there were also significant increases in the Hispanic and multiracial populations.

4. Software developer becomes region’s top occupation

If you’re looking for a single statistic that sums up the Seattle area transformation this decade, here’s a contender: Software developer overtook retail salesperson to become our metro’s No. 1 job. The most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show about 58,000 retail sales workers compared with nearly 66,000 software developers.

Of course, that shift also helps explain why incomes have gone up so rapidly here, with software developers here earning a median of about $125,000.

5. City of millennials

With Gen Y now coming of age, the media focus seems to have shifted away from their predecessors, the millennials — and it’s hard to believe, but the oldest ones are now pushing 40.

Even so, the 2010s were all about millennials, and that was more true in Seattle than just about anywhere. The city became one of the nation’s top magnets for young adults this decade. As of 2018, there were more than 240,000 people age 25-to-39 living in Seattle — that’s one in three city residents. The number of people in this age bracket increased by almost 70,000 since the start of the decade.

This influx of young adults made the city’s median age drop by a full year between 2010 and 2018 (it’s now 35.2 years). And keep in mind, this happened at a time when most of America is getting older, as the massive baby-boomer generation ages into its 60s and 70s. We’ve got plenty of aging boomers here in Seattle, too, but they were more than offset by all those millennial arrivals.

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