The 1960s: Oregon’s Creative Decade

by Christian Kaylor

June 19, 2018

The 1960s were a vibrant and creative decade for Oregon when the accomplishments of notable Oregonians first brought us out of the woods and inspired the world. In 1962, Ken Kesey published One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Two years later, the iconoclastic Senator Wayne Morse, the first U.S. Senator to change political parties while in office, led the opposition to starting the Vietnam War. That same year, a small Eugene company sold 1,300 pairs of shoes labeled Nike out of the trunk of a car. In 1969, Steve Prefontaine joined the University of Oregon track team, beginning a career that would establish him as the greatest distance runner in history.

Those events helped define the Oregon we know today. Examining the economy in the 1960s may seem like a silly exercise in nostalgia. But, economists are often asked to peer into the crystal ball and forecast the conditions of the future. While no one can really know the future, we can look back at where we were decades ago and marvel at the changes that have occurred. By looking at the road we have traveled, perhaps we can gain some insight into the challenges we face in the decades ahead.

A word of warning: Just as the Oregon economy has changed in fundamental ways since the 1960s, how we measure and categorize that economy has also changed significantly. There have been many changes in how we count economic activity. This makes a simple direct comparison unreliable. Breaks in the time series are inevitable. Keep this in mind when examining the past through a modern lens.


The Oregon we know today is much larger than it was 50 years ago. Our population was just 2 million people, half of what it is today. Oregon has a reputation for its lack of diversity. Today Portland, the largest city in Oregon, is the least diverse large city in the U.S., with 71 percent of the population identifying as white, non-Hispanic. But at the time of the 1970 U.S. Census, Oregon was much more homogenous, with people of color representing only 4 percent of the state population.

Oregon is also well known for attracting migrants from around the United States. Most Americans live in the same state they were born in. However, in Oregon natives are a minority of the population. According to the 2016 U.S. Census, only 46 percent of Oregonians were born in Oregon. That makes Oregon one of only 14 states where natives are a minority.

Little has changed since 1960. According to the U.S. Census that year, in only eight states were natives a minority. Then, as now, Oregon was one of those rare states, with 48 percent of the population having been born in Oregon. In the 1960s, Oregon was full of folks who had moved here seeking a better life, a defining trait that Oregon has enjoyed for generations.

Manufacturing Trends

In 1964, Oregon’s economy was dominated by the timber industry. A little more than half of all manufacturing jobs were in timber related sectors: lumber mills, paper mills and wood furniture. With about one out of six non-farm jobs in a factory or mill that processes wood, the timber industry was undoubtedly the most powerful force in the economy. In 2017, the wood product manufacturing sector employed 23,000 workers, representing about 12 percent of all manufacturing employment.

More impressive, manufacturing itself represented about one-third of all jobs in Oregon in the mid-1960s. That extraordinary ratio was mostly in line with the rest of the United States in 1964, when 29 percent of all jobs were in manufacturing. Today, less than 11 percent of workers are employed in the manufacturing industry in the United States.

These days, the high-tech sector employs many more manufacturing workers than wood product manufacturing in Oregon. The high-tech sector of Oregon manufacturing in 1964 was small but emerging. Fewer than 5,000 people worked in the “Electric measuring instruments and test equipment” segment of manufacturing. Those workers earned an average of $6,217 a year in 1964. Adjusted for inflation, that works out to about $50,000 a year today. Fifty years ago, that was 20 percent more than the average Oregon worker. In 2017, the average wage for a worker in the “Computer and electronic product manufacturing” segment of manufacturing was $131,054.

Income Trends

The Oregon we know today is noticeably wealthier than we were in the 1960s. Taking the total annual income for all Oregonians and averaging that amount across the total population gives us the Per Capita Personal Income (PCPI) statistic. This is a widely used measure of economic prosperity. In 1964, Oregon’s PCPI was just $2,750. Adjusting for inflation that would be $22,318 in current dollars. In 2017, the PCPI for Oregon was double that amount at $46,361. Fifty years of economic growth has been very good for income growth as well.

There is a concerning trend in the income data. In 1964, Oregon’s PCPI was almost identical to the national average. Oregon ranked 16th out of the 50 states for income, noticeably above the middle of the rankings, tucked in between Ohio and Colorado. Today, Oregon has slipped to 27th in the income rankings among the 50 states. Oregon’s PCPI of $46,361 is 8 percent less than the U.S. average of $50,392 and 13 percent less than Colorado. While every U.S. state has seen income gains over the past 50 years, Oregon has grown noticeably slower than the vast majority of U.S. states. Only two U.S. states, Indiana and Illinois, have seen slower income growth since 1964.

Looking at income by geography within Oregon, income trends from the 1960s haven’t changed much in the last 50 years. The Portland area counties – Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas – had the highest per capita personal income levels in 1969, earning about 15 percent more than the average Oregonian. On the other end of the spectrum, a handful of counties had incomes about 15 percent less than Oregon’s average: Coos, Curry, Tillamook, and Lincoln counties on the coast; Jefferson and Josephine counties in Southern Oregon; and a few counties in the Willamette Valley and Northeastern Oregon.

Fast-forward 50 years and the Portland area counties still enjoy the highest per capita personal income levels, while rural counties in eastern Oregon tend to have the lowest income levels. Only two Oregon counties have moved from below average in the 1960s to above average today: Hood River County in the Columbia Gorge and Deschutes County in Central Oregon.

Looking Ahead

In many ways, Oregon hasn’t changed much in the past two generations. We are a western state that features mountains and coasts, forests and deserts. A reputation for excellent quality of life drives our population growth. Most Oregonians relocated here by choice. The Portland area is relatively wealthy while the rural areas are relatively poor. The most noticeable change has been Oregon’s move away from a timber dependent economy to something more diverse.

The 1960s are gone. The athlete, Steve Prefontaine and the author, Ken Kesey are no longer with us. The entrepreneur runners who first sold Nike’s from the trunk of a car have all retired. But those creative spirits who helped define Oregon in the 1960s left us a powerful legacy: a global reputation for both talented play and focused drive. Olympians still train in Oregon and artists continue to create works here that inspire people around the world. If we can keep it, that passion Oregonians are known for will be a fundamental driver of economic growth for decades to come.


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