Culture Shift
9:34 am
Wed April 16, 2014

The Millennial Work-Life Revolution In Seattle

Labs desks at WeWork can be rented for $300 per month and include additional access to investors, curated events, monthly demo days and office hours.
Credit Courtesy of WeWork

The millennial generation is taking control over how they work and how they live. The group, currently about 18 to 33 years old, is adopting technology that is disrupting old structures and writing the playbook on how to take advantage of technological change.

In their home lives, millennials are daring to cast off conventional structures like mortgages, houses and cars. They're having an impact on Seattle where those on the leading edge of change congregate to live and work.

Just like the baby boomers before them – whose generational size they rival – millennials are reshaping the culture.

Matching Creativity

In Seattle, creative and skilled millennials have a lot of power. Technology companies seek them out and pay them well. Developers build for them.

At the Microsoft campus in Redmond, spaces have opened to suit their needs.

“It’s one of the central requirements or desires of the millennial generation to not be told how to do your work. Not being told where to do your work; not being told when to do your work,” said Chris Owens, general manager of worldwide real estate at Microsoft. “So we’ve tried to create a lot more choices in how they can do their work.”

More choice is now possible because the infrastructure of work is changing. Data storage in the cloud allows older companies and new enterprises to lighten their load, shedding rooms full of servers or never acquiring them in the first place.

This grants workers a new level of mobility and it means young enterprises can concentrate on building the company, not the infrastructure: A little startup money goes much further.

“I often tell people that I would give anything to be 20 years younger and just coming out of college and being an entrepreneur again,” said James Maiocco, a director at Microsoft Ventures. “It’s a very, very different market.”

‘Culture Of Curiosity’

More mobility in work opens up the possibilities for how to work and with whom.

Maiocco, for instance, is not spending all his time on a corporate campus. He’s set up shop in the South Lake Union area of Seattle, at a co-working space called WeWork.

Co-working spaces have existed for years, but WeWork is distinctive because it serves creative people who want to meet the people who can help them get going. It offers access to investors like Maiocco and an array of services entrepreneurs need.

The large firms these entrepreneurs interact with come out ahead too.

The lobby of WeWork in South Lake Union, Seattle.
Credit Courtesy of WeWork

“I sat down with four startups yesterday, gave them some feedback and also learned some great things about some markets that I didn’t know about,” Maiocco said.

WeWork is an idea that has spread from New York to centers across the country. Seattle’s WeWork opened several months ago, with a capacity of 800.

“This is designed to be flexible in so many ways,” said Gina Phillips, WeWork’s city lead in Seattle.

Rent is month to month, so people can rapidly move from single desks to bigger spaces, starting small and growing fast.

Membership here automatically gives workers a home base in any city where there’s a WeWork, including access to meeting rooms.

There are kitchens and meeting rooms, local beer and citrus water. A lot of the people working here are millennials, including Eileen Namanny, a senior project manager at a Texas marketing company. She and a colleague were among the first in the door when WeWork opened earlier this year.

“It’s still pretty exciting. Everyone you meet, you’re just in awe while they’re talking about what they do,” Namanny said.

During an interview a bald eagle flew by her window, and Namanny’s excitement brought people to her cubicle from work areas nearby. Elsewhere, workers clustered around a computer screen as a just-finished project was shown. People from different companies were sharing the moment together.

And it's not that the workers are young, because many of them are not. Mark Relph is mid-career, recently left Microsoft seeking change, and decided to pay for an office at WeWork instead of staying at home alone.

“Everyone has Internet access, everyone has a desk, but at some point you want to be around other people,” Relph said. 

Maiocco said there is a particular quality to the people working in this new way.

“It’s much more about a culture of curiosity. People in their 20s are still curious. And as we get older, many times we get more set in our ways, less open to change,” he said. “But people who remain open to change, people who remain curious about the world, those are the people you see here, regardless of their age.”

City And Kids, Stay Or Go?

In Seattle, the millennials' commitment to city life has helped reverse a 100-year trend toward suburban growth. More development is happening now in the center of the city than at its limits.

Via6's main level features several food offerings and communal space.
Credit Courtesy Via6

Loving an urban lifestyle means car and home ownership do not figure into their plans. A mortgage, even if affordable, looks like a ball and chain. This is a generation willing to move, to rent and to sacrifice living space to be where the action is.

But that makes developers wonder what happens as more of them advance toward decision time for childbearing.

“I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens as they age and they do choose to marry, to raise children,” said Microsoft’s Owens.

The question seems to be whether millennials will decide to move out of the city or keep children in the city and instead address the issues that drove previous child-rearing generations from downtown areas.

Developers want to know what to build for the future. They operate on long timelines, so they are asking themselves what they could build that is not a standard single family home and then placing their bets.

They could create a new center of everything, just not in the city. That’s the strategy behind the Spring District, currently a vast chunk of land in Bellevue’s Bel-Red area.

Wright Runstad & Company is the developer for the property. President Greg Johnson is betting the millennial generation will want to live in new rented spaces, located in a good place for children, in a community that has everything needed within walking distance or public transit accessible.

“They can probably afford to spend a bit more on their apartment if they can get rid of their car,” Johnson said.

To do that, he said people will need to be able to walk to work, perhaps passing a Whole Foods Market on the way. There needs to be a train station within a couple of blocks, a park nearby and a great school district.

The Spring District in Bellevue will be built in phases and will include commercial and residential buildings as well as park space.
Credit Courtesy The Spring District

Simplicity And Community

Another approach is to make it less expensive to live in the actual center of everything – like South Lake Union or downtown Seattle. This means less space inside the apartment and making the most of common areas outside it.

Matt Griffin is the managing partner of Pine Street Group, the developer of Via6, which has excited urban planners with its possibilities within a single building footprint.

Griffin said millennials yearn for simplicity and community.

Besides outfitting bike commuters, a bike shop in Via6 also has a stock of tricycles.
Credit Courtesy Via6

“If we could create an environment that allowed them to live within walking distance to mass transit or their jobs, have basically the services of community to live in so they didn’t have to spend all their time in their own apartment, we would be able to satisfy a need,” Griffin said.

Common areas abound at Via6. The rooftop has barbecues and a dining room for entertaining under the stars. The ground floor is a continuum of restaurants.

“When you come down here in the morning, the restaurant’s already abuzz. People are in there working, they’re getting deliveries,” Griffin said. “People are walking in to get their newspaper, people are getting their coffee and it’s already got the buzz of a city waking up.”

The common media room allows people to watch favorite shows together. “When the Seahawks score a touchdown, it kind of rolls through the ground floor and makes you draw near to see what your neighbors are doing," he said.

The building has a bike shop with a lot of tricycles for sale. Griffin said he’s surprised by the number of families that has moved in.

But will they stay once their children are ready for school? That’s a question many developers find the most interesting of all.