Among the most enduring images of Seattle's history is the billboard that stood on Pacific Highway near SeaTac airport for a few weeks in 1971 that read: "Will the Last Person Leaving SEATTLE Turn out the Lights." The image quickly spread, even as far as The Economist (primarily a UK publication back then), which dubbed Seattle the "City of Despair." This was quite a comedown from the triumphs of the 1960s:World's Fair, launch of the 747, Here Come the Brides.
Looking back, though, the Boeing Bust was not nearly as bad as observers feared at the time. This was certainly a very painful few years for the region, but considering that Boeing supported about 45 percent of the economy at the time and cut its workforce by nearly half over two years, the potential for complete disaster was huge. As it turned out, the region largely recovered in less than a decade.
Did everyone abandon Seattle, as the billboard implied? Well, yes and no. A fair number of people did leave the region following the waves of layoffs, with a net loss of about 85,000 people from 1970 to 1974. But that was after a net gain of over 200,000 people during the 1960s. So, looked at over a decade, from 1965 through 1974, the region still gained about 140,000 people from migration. Not bad for a City of Despair!
Not surprisingly, the job losses during the Bust were heavily concentrated in two areas: manufacturing and construction. More surprising, though, were the relatively low job losses in the service economy. Most categories of private and government service employment fell only in the low single digits, and recovered quickly by the mid-1970s.
The lesson, repeated in the housing recession of the early 1980s, the dot-com bust of the 2000s and the current Great Recession: people tend to stick around the Seattle area, even when times get tough. This has two major benefits. First, talent is available to fuel the next wave of growth. Second, even the unemployed need basic services and continued household spending, weak as it might get, helps keep the rest of the economy intact.
The ability of the Seattle area to attract and, most important, to keep talented people is a central theme of Century 21 City: Seattle's Fifty Year Journey from World's Fair to World Stage. Chapter 3 describes the run up of Boeing employment in the 1960s and the company's ups and downs since. Go to the book's website to learn more.