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Career ambitions, higher cost of living erode Austin’s ‘Slacker’ vibe

Wammo could easily have been Austin’s biggest slacker, but for the hassle of entering the contest.

The singer and nightclub DJ had no day job, went stretches without a permanent address, went by a weird name and played in a band with a weird name. He arrived in Austin in 1985 and drank for free at the Beach Cabaret and the Electric Lounge because he knew the owners. Oh, and there’s this: He played one of the characters in “Slacker,” the 1991 film that showed the world the march-to-your-own-drummer slice of Austin that Wammo and others so enthusiastically inhabited.

“My only job was to go spin records and play music,” said Wammo, 52. “I had no day job. I had no real job at all. I was living the life.”

Austin’s embrace of eccentrics, dreamers and misfits has lived on, but only as a sort of cultural inheritance from the “Slacker” era that most writers and cultural observers say had faded by the end of the 1990s. Recent polling and economic reality suggest one of the central tenets of Slackerdom has indeed given way to a different outlook: People in boomtown Austin seem to increasingly value work, focus and career success.

“Austin used to be a spot for a lot of people to check out. Now it’s a good place to check in,” said Peter Zandan, a pollster who has been doing opinion surveys here for three decades. “We used to be a place you could go to go nowhere and not do much. Now, increasingly, Austin appears to be a place where people go to be somewhere and do something.”

He added that, with Austin’s rising cost of living, “I think it’s harder to be a slacker here than it was.”

Zandan conducted a wide-ranging survey in April to gauge people’s attitudes in the Austin metro area, asking everything from whether the city is on the right track to whether Austin has retained its (literally) trademarked weirdness. Among other things, though, he was struck by the change in the slacker scene.

Zandan concluded Austinites now are less likely to choose a laid-back life without a steady job, partly because of optimism about their career prospects. Of those responding to his survey, 87 percent were either satisfied or very satisfied with their job. Nearly three-quarters said they were confident or very confident that, if they lost that job, they could find one as good or better within six months. Only 3 percent described themselves as underemployed.

Zandan also asked a related question: Which group did Austinites feel the strongest connection to? Between college students, retirees and the 6 percent of those polled who said they are unemployed, only half the city is working full-time. Yet 22 percent of those polled still said their strongest connection is with people from work. (The next closest answers were neighbors at 16 percent; religious community, 13 percent; hobbies, 13 percent; and school, 12 percent.)

“If you work, there’s almost a 50 percent chance work is the group you associate most closely with,” Zandan said. “That’s a working town.”

“Slacker” director Richard Linklater did not consider the term synonymous with lazy. It alludes to a lifestyle that grew in the 1970s, when the University of Texas cost $200 a semester and Austin’s vibe was more relaxed, recalled George Cofer, then a UT student and now executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy.

“You could be at the lake in 10 minutes,” Cofer told the Statesman earlier this year. “We had the best music in the world, all the good honky-tonks. It was easier, freer, more open then.”

By the early 1990s that vibe had shaped Austin’s reputation as the bohemian, conspicuously tolerant, liberal capital of a conservative state. In 2012, when an O. Henry Museum exhibit rebranded the prolific Austin writer as a slacker, an assistant curator noted: “That’s the true definition of a slacker: someone who’s productive, but not at what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Economist Brian Kelsey arrived in Austin in 2002 to attend the University of Texas and said, only partly in jest, “I stay for the pretty people.” Despite the continued influence of the “Slacker” era, he said the rising cost of housing “is certainly making the ‘Slacker’ archetype more difficult to achieve.”

“The more interesting question to me is where things stand on ‘Slacker’s’ points about political, social and economic marginalization,” Kelsey added. “What must Austin do to maintain its bootstrapped artistic and cultural institutions, assuming we are serious about wanting to, amid growing prosperity and rapidly escalating property values?”

The average rent in Austin is now more than $1,000, having risen 50 percent in 10 years, while the median income rose just 9 percent. Housing now takes 30 percent of Austin renters’ income, more than the national average and more than the “red line” that Zillow Real Estate Research says is too much of a household’s income.

“Affordability has a lot to do with creativity” in a community, Zandan said. “Eroding affordability can take a lot of what made Austin special out of the picture.”

Greg Wilson had a bit part in “Slacker” and is now, he said, “a recovering musician who went tech and put up his guitar for a parachute.” He said the “Slacker” vibe is still present but has been diluted as Austin developed a nationwide reputation.

“If I plucked a musician out of the freak parade that marches by my house every week,” Wilson said, “it would be just as likely they owned a condo as they were trying to cobble together their next Lone Star” beer.

Peter Dutton moved from Houston to Austin in December when his employer, Virtus Partners, which helps companies manage their assets, opened an Austin office. Dutton, 26, had visited many times and was attracted to the food, the friendliness, the natural feel, the strong sense of pride Austinites take in their city and the laid-back-yet-working culture — a set of assets the area’s economists say is a major reason the region is attracting talent.

Still, without the job, Dutton would not be here.

“One of my goals is to branch out into entrepreneurship. Austin is a great city for that,” he said. “My career is very important to me.”

That would have disqualified Dutton from the contest American-Statesman columnist John Kelso once held to find Austin’s biggest slacker. Wammo, the musician and DJ, insists he could have won, had he cared to enter. He said the ability to live as a slacker enabled him to stay here until his band got well-known enough to make a decent living touring.

There was a time Wammo rented an old warehouse space in East Austin for $180 a month, including utilities. Eventually, he married a woman from Pittsburgh, played on the road a lot and grew out of the “Slacker” mindset.

“I’m probably making it sound too rosy, because there were tough times, but it still was fun while it lasted,” he said.

He doesn’t have a good sense of how prevalent the “Slacker” vibe is in 2014.

“I moved to Pittsburgh nearly three years ago,” he said. “Austin just got too expensive.”

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