The Truth About Living In Silicon Valley

Bernardo Montes de Oca
An aerial view of Apple Park located in Cupertino, California.

For many, Silicon Valley is the place where dreams come true. After all, most of the technology that has shaped the world over the past two decades originated there. Yet, as the Bay Area has solidified its reputation, it has also caused a seismic shift in living conditions. 

Silicon Valley is now the focus of many discussions, from transformative salaries to harsh realities. The world loves analyzing how tech companies will shape the future now. We traveled there to discover the truth behind this seemingly idyllic place, and to research what makes Silicon Valley unique, for better or worse. 

One question that many ask is: is the price worth it? The factors that drive people here, such as money and a future, are sometimes not enough to compensate for the energy required to live here. So, happiness can be a measuring point. 

How happy are people in Silicon Valley? 

Whether people are happy in Silicon Valley or not is not a new topic. It goes back to the early 2000s when the region was rapidly becoming a hotbed for innovation, a promise for "the future" and prosperity. Throughout the years, these became motivators for a massive migration to Silicon Valley. Yet, unfortunately, people mistook them for happiness. 

Fast forward, and we're feeling the impact. Google "happiness in Silicon Valley," and the results will show the dualities that rule here. Some praise the region for being one of the happiest in the world. Others bash it for putting aside mental health in the endless pursuit to create the next great idea. 

People often interchange success and happiness here in Silicon Valley, but with the caveat that defining the latter is much more challenging than we've come to think. Still, if statistics tell us one thing, the region is happy

It's hard to define the frontiers that contain Silicon Valley. Still, one survey found that places such as San José, Irvine, San Diego, and Santa Rosa rank among the top 15 of 180 cities that were rated the happiest in the US. These are vital hubs in Silicon Valley, and some rank on top, with San Francisco and San Jose ranking 3 and 4, respectively. 

At the same time, income can be high. Tech jobs command some of the highest salaries in the region. In Silicon Valley, the median household income in 2021 was $138,100. San Francisco has around $126,000. Zoom out, and you'll see that the median income in California is $83,060; in the US, it's $67,300. 

Income has also grown relentlessly. While the US has averaged a 16% increase over the past nine years, Silicon Valley has nearly doubled it, with a 28% increase. San Francisco has seen a 41% growth, all to keep up with the breakneck speed that this region has had. 

So, there's no denying that income has shifted the paradigm within the region. However, at the same time, it's also clear that more money could mean more stability and a more transparent financial future. These are essential factors in happiness. Moreover, there are the jobs themselves and how they help define what happiness is in Silicon Valley.

A broad concept, essentially human, such as happiness, is challenging to define. Still, this place tries to do so. Or, at least, that's what the big companies feel they must do. That and startups also play a vital role in defining what drives people to stay here. After all, in recent times, the mysticism around Silicon Valley has slowly eroded. 

Is Silicon Valley Diverse? 

Everyone here is following a dream and Silicon Valley often brags about diversity. After all, according to the Silicon Valley Index, 39% of the population is foreign-born. Plus, the migrant population is essential to the technological drive in the region. 

By only looking at the unicorns that have come out of Silicon Valley, one notices that diversity is one of the key drivers, or so it seems. Let's take a sample size of 50 Silicon Valley unicorns, and we'll see that only 20% of them don't have a founder that wasn't born in the US. 

In 2020, 24% of Silicon Valley's population was Latino, 39% Asian, and 29% White. Compare this with a decade ago, when the white population was 36%. So there is a driving force of diversity within Silicon Valley. At least, that's what you perceive from the outside.

The population is diverse, but an underlying problem has evolved to become much more evident. Silicon Valley is diverse in Silicon Valley terms, not in general. While the population has grown and diversified, the working force is an entirely different story. Take Black workers in tech. The US Census Bureau indicates that Black tech workers in Silicon Valley make up 2.2% of the population. Other massive tech hubs, such as New York, have 7.3%, and the DC metro area has an astounding 17%. 

The Latino population makes up a massive percentage of the general population in Silicon Valley, but not in tech. Only 4.7% of the tech working force is Latino. In fact, it's still a white-dominated game in the tech world. Several studies place the workforce to be much less diverse than the entire population of Silicon Valley. White employees, not Hispanic or Latino, make up 61% of the leadership roles and 48% of all the tech jobs. 

Meanwhile, the Black community doesn't even crack ten percent in any categories, and that's only about race and ethnicity. When we include gender, Silicon Valley loses even more of its essence. It's a man's world. In the 20 most prominent tech companies, women comprise 44% of the workforce but only 26% of the leadership roles. If we dive deeper into the numbers, we see that 1.8% of the workforce is female and Hispanic. This population takes up more than 24% of Silicon Valley's population. 

Let's make a break here and highlight the positive. In 2018, the top 150 largest companies in Silicon Valley had only 8% of female directors. In 2019, a California law required employers to have at least one woman on the board of directors, which worked. So, while Silicon Valley is still struggling with diversity, there are some signs that it's changing. The concerning issue here is whether it will happen fast enough. McKinsey found that companies closer to gender parity earn up to 50% more profits than those that don't. 

How people see the future within Silicon Valley

Do people see themselves living long periods within Silicon Valley? It's a tricky question to answer. At the same time, it's hard to predict whether, five or ten years down the line, conditions will radically change in the future. 

The pandemic was an atypical phenomenon, but it did highlight an issue: if people didn't need to stay in Silicon Valley, they would leave it. As a result, 43,000 people left Silicon Valley between April 2020 and July 2021. 

It's easy to adjudicate the causes of this problem to the pandemic. If this was the case, migration should've slowed down when things "went back to normal." Though we're still sorting out the pandemic as a reality, migration has remained. By late 2021, the Silicon Valley population had dropped 1% due to several factors, including outmigration. 

49% of residents in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, two essential parts of Silicon Valley, say it's likely that they will move out. In the Bay Area, it's even a more significant number, with a 55% average of residents saying that it's likely they will also leave. It's only a matter of when, instead of if, according to the Silicon Valley Index. 

At the same time, there's a significant factor at stake here. People stay in certain regions because factors keep them there positively. For example, the two most prominent contractors in Silicon Valley are Apple and Alphabet. So, we must analyze whether employees there are happy or not. 

For years, these two companies have ranked on top of happiness surveys. It's not only them; other Silicon Valley companies such as Adobe and RingCentral also rank extremely high. In some cases, this factor might be enough to overcome some challenges within Silicon Valley. 

There are a lot of reasons why people would stay within Silicon Valley. The big salaries, motivating jobs, and the possibility of being the next great thing that shapes our future is tempting. Still, some aspects make living here a challenge. 

Is there a work-life balance in Silicon Valley?

Throughout the last decade, the topic of work-life balance in Silicon Valley has been the source of much debate. This place is the epitome of the hustle, and that's been going on for years. Life there is not about going slow, and at least it seems everyone understands that. Many there know you must sacrifice everything to make it, but is this true? 

You'd think that those who work in tech have a terrible work-life balance, but you'd be wrong. In the end, it's as though you have it ingrained in your culture that you must compete, then it seems that your work-life balance doesn't suffer a lot. Software developers at big companies such as Google, Meta, and Apple have the highest levels of work-life balance while also making this aspect a vital requisite for their jobs

Then comes the dilemma. If developers say this about their work-life balance, then why are stats showing something else? In 2020, several studies showed that burnout was frequent. That's where Silicon Valley begins to show its darker side. 

On average, 16% of professionals in Silicon Valley have a psychologist or a mental health expert, while the national average is only 11%. Also, 27% of people living in Silicon Valley experienced anxiety or depression, while the national average is 24%. 

The problem of burnout and stress in Silicon Valley has become so mainstream that websites are dedicated entirely to this topic. Many factors could play a role in the anxiety and stress of living here. Right now, the warnings are almost everywhere. The stats don't lie; nearly 60% of employees suffer from burnout, and a big reason is simple: living here. 

Silicon Valley Is Not Affordable

There's no way around it: living in Silicon Valley is expensive. It's so costly that new employees in IT dedicate up to 79% of their income to paying rent. With such high rent costs, living there is a burden to many. 

In 2021, the median housing price in the US had increased to around $306,000. Meanwhile, in the state of California, it's been $628,000, but In Silicon Valley and the Bay area, it's much more expensive. The median house price in Silicon Valley can be $1.3 million or more. You either live in the heart of a bustling city that demands you pay massive amounts of money, or you live farther away and add to the commute. Take into consideration one rule. We've been told that renting and housing costs should be about 30% for years. Still, we know that in Silicon Valley, it isn't like this. So, how different is it? 

Let's consider a term, housing burden, to explain this. You're under a housing burden whenever you use more than 30% of your gross income to cover housing costs. For example, in Silicon Valley, about half of the houses have a housing burden for renters and owners. 

Things become even more interesting when stats are split between owners and renters. While the burden has decreased for homeowners, it has increased for renters. From 2007 to 2019, the number of burdened homes increased by 26,000. 

Silicon Valley faces a complex housing crisis, and the burden isn't the only cause. As cities grow, adequate infrastructure is vital, and this place has failed to keep up. There's one crucial factor called Proposition 13

This law distorted the real estate market by affecting its value in the long run, as Les Picker explains: 

"This means that as long as property values increase by more than 2 percent per year, homeowners gain from remaining in the same house because their taxes are lower than they would be on a different house of the same value." 

Thus, with fewer houses to pass around, and owners refusing to tear them down to allow construction, living costs are only bound to increase. High rent is no problem for a fraction of the population, but not for everyone. 

What's The Average Income In Silicon Valley

Salaries are the commanding force in Silicon Valley, and they are why many choose to stay there. Yet, all the challenges mentioned before aren't enough to quell the drive to land one of the jobs here, right now, in Silicon Valley. 

In 2021, the median salary for a software developer was $103,000 on average. That's a good salary, but that's only the starting point. Some companies, in 2021, had mindbogglingly high wages, such as Facebook. Here, developers had a median salary of $240,000. 

Let's take this to the other extreme, with one of the most important companies within the US. Amazon has helped shift the way we think of logistics by allowing us to have one-day delivery on many of the things we want. 

The average salary for a warehouse worker in California is $28,446. So again, we see the massive wage gap, and it's not only there. Employees at companies such as Facebook earn up to eight times more than service workers, such as warehouse and cleaning staff. 

Since 2008, there have been five minimum wage increases in California. That doesn't even come close to how much housing has increased over the years. Salaries in tech have increased at impressive rates. 

If we take the broader scope and adjust for inflation, the highest salaries have increased by 0.7% in the past twenty years. Meanwhile, wages in the 50th percentile declined by 14.2% in the same period. 

Average wages, driven by those massive salaries, have an enviable increase compared to other regions of the country. But, what these salaries generate is inequality. People can't afford rent, much less buy a house, so they live farther from their jobs. So, commutes become ever longer. It's either that or living with the devil. 

How Corporations Control Terrain In Silicon Valley

While corporations have plenty of buying power, they have also been a part of the housing crisis, for better or worse. Many big names, such as Google and Facebook, have pledged to help the housing crisis. This involves massive donations and working with private and public companies to provide affordable housing. But this raises a bigger question in the eyes of some. 

Let's take Facebook, for example. It has created massive salaries, contributing to inequality. Yet, it's pledging to help the problem by donating one billion dollars. While the gesture seems noble, we can't help but ask: what does the help consist of? Well, it's granting loans, expecting a return. Microsoft and Google have also pledged hundreds of millions to solve this issue with a similar idea. 

So, the companies will see some profit. After all, they are, in the end, granting loans and acting as a middleman to solve a crisis they helped create. 

Big tech is also buying property like crazy. Companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have purchased residential and commercial properties worth billions of dollars. They take advantage of the volatile real estate market and their purchasing power. 

In August of 2022, rent hasn't slowed down. Spiking prices have also caused more people to leave the area. At the same time, projects such as Google's Downtown West have stirred controversy. The fact is that space is becoming ever more critical, and these big companies are looking for it. In this case, it's a land battle like nothing else, and there's no sign that it will slow down. 

The consequences of expensive living: Gentrification

From 2010 to 2017, commute time increased by 21%, with people averaging 73 minutes in traffic, but this isn't the only significant signal. Let's take, for example, the super commuter. These are people who have to travel more than 90 minutes per day. 

This was a rare occurrence and only reserved for those who lived far, but now, it has changed. From 2009 to 2017, the number of super commuters increased in the Bay Area. In some cases, such as Alameda, with an average of 127% increase in these years. Of course, it's not all about the commute, but this is a big thing. The most significant impact of the rising cost of living can be seen within the heart of Silicon Valley itself. People ditch their apartments for cheaper options, and some even end up homeless. Still, Silicon Valley is deceiving. If we look at the numbers, they often seem to tell a different story that we can't feel unless we're deep inside. 

Let's take a look at poverty. Silicon Valley can boast that it has one of the lowest poverty rates in the US, with 5% of the population living in poverty. This number doesn't show that, for example, African Americans have 12% poverty, which is more than double that of Latinos or Asians. American Indians have 14% poverty, and these numbers don't improve when the conditions around them seem to. 

Then, there's the harsh reality of sustaining a home. Silicon Valley has a 5% poverty rate and a 27.7% below standard and above poverty. However, at the same time, a third of households need public or private assistance to make ends meet. 

All this pushes people to poverty, plain and simple. Poverty disguises itself in different ways. For example, let's look at the homeless situation in Silicon Valley, one that many call a crisis, with due reason. From 2011 to 2019, the homeless population has more than doubled, with more of them unsheltered than ever before. The leading cause of homelessness is losing their job, with 30%. 

So, in the end, Silicon Valley is the land of opportunity, but for some, not everyone. It might be directly in front of you, and in other cases, it might be so far away that it seems impossible to reach. That's the problem there. 

We can diagnose some of the problems within Silicon Valley, but we can't see them all. At the same time, we can't highlight all the good. We don’t see great potential, and it's up to Silicon Valley to show it. 

Bernardo Montes de Oca
Content creator in love with writing in all its forms, from scripts to short stories to investigative journalism, and about almost every topic imaginable.
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