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Beyond Boeing: My Town, My Peers, Our Future

by Surya Hendry
Also Featured on NPR/ WBUR's Here And Now

Beyond Boeing: My Town, My Peers, Our Future

by Surya Hendry
Also Featured on NPR/ WBUR's Here And Now
Boeing 787 Dreamliners sit on the assembly line at the Boeing Factory in Everett, Washington. (Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

It was late August 2016, I was waiting for my junior year to start and then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump came to my city, Everett. “In this new future, millions of workers on the sidelines will be returned to the workforce,” Trump said in his speech

I get why a politician would like to tell our story. Everett is a company town — a poster child for manufacturing where you could graduate high school, get a job at Boeing and buy a house. But now that “middle class life” thing that people point to feels like it’s slipping away. 

For me and my peers, the story of Everett is also our story. And our fortunes are tied to the city’s. 

I’ve been thinking about the political narrative of places like my hometown, and how that may not hold for the future.

Recently I went downtown to meet up with my friend Kelsey Fassett. We went to elementary and middle school together. The neighborhood where Kelsey grew up is full of families with parents who worked for Boeing. The neat 2-story houses probably look to an outsider like the typical “American dream.”

“That was the blueprint for a lot of people our parents’ age,” she said. 

People are proud of this heritage of blue-collar success that Trump jumped on. But Kelsey is quick to point out that she’s on a different path. She goes to a state college and is a computer science major. She’s excited to work a tech job in the future — something with a lot of spreadsheets. “I am not like most people. The idea of sitting and crunching numbers all day sounds like a dream to me. That sounds awesome. I just love sitting and doing calculations and busy work. I love it,” she said.

We talked about how even ten years ago, that decision to work in computer science would have been really rare, but now many kids in the area are leaving to take on Seattle jobs. Manufacturing doesn’t pay the bills the way it used to, and it’s not as stable anymore.

I’ve lived here all my life. When my parents were searching for a place to raise a family, they chose Everett partially because it was affordable and safe for kids, according to my mom Shobhna Hendry. 

“We were looking for a home that would have a backyard and be spacious plus in a good school district,” she said. “We know many families that have stayed here for generations. But that wasn’t something we were expecting — that you and your sister would be here.” 

Reporter Surya Hendry in her childhood,
dressed up as aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.
(Photo courtesy of Surya Hendry)

Now, my mom wants me to explore the world. As a first-generation American, my mom had big dreams for our family. Other parents want their kids to follow in their footsteps — work for Boeing. Stay in Everett. Build a family here.

Charlie Aust graduated high school in 2017, and has worked at Boeing for almost two years. His stepfather did maintenance as a subcontractor for Boeing.

“I am what’s called an assembler installer. I work on the 767 planes,” he said. “I don’t feel like I belong in this industry necessarily. It’s mostly an opportunity thing because, you know, the job pays well and Boeing obviously, as a very large corporation, is going to offer a healthy benefits package, right? It’s a good decision objectively for a lot of people in the area.”

Charlie says people who were hired right after him are getting laid off, and he worries about getting laid off too. In the spring, Boeing announced a planned 10% reduction in its workforce. More cuts are expected, and headlines about the 787 Dreamliner production leaving Everett have everyone talking.

When Boeing takes a hit, it threatens the way of life here. So, recently, I asked my mom a really big question: What do you think would happen in this area if Boeing left Everett?

Her response: “I think that Everett would see a larger depression in the economy than they’re already seeing, partly due to the pandemic.”

We’re both invested in what happens to Boeing, even though my parents don’t work there and I went to college more than 800 miles away. “Yeah, because at the end of the day, we’re interconnected,” my mom said. We like our neighborhood, which is filled with young families who might not be able to keep their houses during a recession. And my dad’s legal business relies on Boeing employees having some expendable income. 

I decided to talk to my local representative, Democrat Jared Mead, about the future of Everett as a company town. He’s 29 years old, and he represents the experiences of my generation.

“I lived with my mom until I was in my early 20s until I graduated college because that’s just what our generation is used to,” he told me when I asked him about how our prospects compare to earlier generations. “I had a long conversation with [my mom] just a few weeks ago about this exact thing. Most people have not had to deal with what our generation is now dealing with with the cost of living, the four-year degree price, the student loan debt interest. All of that. There’s a romanticized version of what a big corporation can do for a family,” Mead said.

Mead said now most people here in their early 20’s can’t buy a house. He couldn’t afford to buy a house in the area where he grew up. His father-in-law was a Boeing “lifer” who got a taste of the classic middle-class lifestyle. “He’s now in his early fifties. He’s been there 35, 36 years. And he lives in the house that he bought with his first two years of Boeing paychecks,” he said.

To me, this almost sounds imaginary. Many of my friends are leaving because they can make more money elsewhere. Or they feel like Charlie Aust does, that manufacturing might not offer the kind of career they want long-term. “So it’s kind of something I wrestle with myself about whether I want to stay at this job that I don’t exactly love, you know, and get the you know, the money that they are willing to pay their people or, you know, take that loss financially and go somewhere else where I might enjoy it more,” he said.

Young people like me have big decisions to make about whether to stay in our town or leave. And COVID and the economic recession aren’t making things any clearer. I just hope that my peers have the choice to stay here in Everett and build a successful future. 

Surya Hendry is part of a collaboration between YR Media and WNYC’s Radio Rookies called 18-to-29 Now: Young America Speaks Up. It’s an election project that brings together young adults (18-to-29) from around the country to document their lives and what’s at stake for them in 2020.

Coronavirus Update to YR Media Community
Coronavirus Update to YR Media Community