Today’s architecture students and recent graduates are really lucky... but most of them don’t realize it. Why are they lucky? Because most of them don’t have a chance of getting a job in an architectural firm. So how can that possibly be a good thing? Here’s how:
Over the course of a 40+ year career, an architect will experience a number of minor recessions, and a couple of bone-jarring ones. The current recession has the possibility of becoming the worst downturn since the Great Depression, and architecture is sitting right in the crosshairs since the epicenter of the carnage was the real estate market. There’s no doubt that your career will include at least one shattering downturn; the only question is which decade of your career that the monster shows up. We’re equipped differently at different times in life to deal with serious downturns. Here it is, by the decade, starting with the old guys first:
50s and Above
These people are right in the middle or have just passed through their peak earning years, so many of them have accumulated serious assets (for an architect, that is.) Many of my friends in this group are seriously debating retiring early so that they can protect their assets because a nest egg that might last 30 years could easily get burned up in just a year or two trying to keep a larger firm operating when there’s no business. If my colleagues in this age group thought the recovery would come quickly, they’d probably stick it out, but there’s very little hope out there that this will end anytime soon.
I’m in this group. We’ve been working hard for years, and have finally gotten some notoriety, usually accompanied by a degree of financial success. But I don’t know anyone my age who has accumulated enough assets to be able to retire. So we’ll have to keep working. Problem is, this recession/depression/whatever it is that we’re in looks like it will be pounding architecture and construction for so long that many of us are seriously looking at doing something else for a living. And when architects are forced out of architecture mid-career, they hardly ever come back.
The outlook here is equally bleak, but for different reasons. Most architects in this group have recently made major commitments, and are likely saddled with a house and a family, and some of them have started their own fledgling business. As a result, they have even less margin for error than their 40-something colleagues. They may not yet have as much to lose, but their cushion for the fall is small to non-existent in many cases. They, too, are likely to leave the profession and never return.
This brings us to the lucky ones. You’re at one point in a career where you can lose your job (or not get hired after graduation) and be nimble enough to deal with it and return to the profession later. If you do this right, it could be the best thing that ever happened to you. Here’s what to do:
1: Take a job... any job. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with architecture. The good news is that your education likely was quite broad, and the abilities you picked up should serve you well in many fields. Ideally, look for something in publishing or advertising for reasons I’ll describe later. In most cases, this job will simply be something to pay the bills. The real fun happens at night, after you get home from work:
2: Create an initiative, a cause, or a movement that pushes forward the art or science of sustainability in architecture and urbanism in some way. Ideas are the currency of the new age. Purpose to become a thought leader.
3: Build your network of colleagues. You can do this by tapping into existing organizations like NextGen or the Students for the New Urbanism, or you might create your own group.
4: Publish your work. This is why I said that a publishing- or advertising-related job might be a good idea: it puts you in good proximity with the printing mechanism. You’ll likely self-publish, which is easier today than ever before. And consider all the routes, of course, including the paperless ones.
5: When architecture emerges from this long night, you’ll likely find the upper ranks of the profession much-depleted, especially if this thing lasts for 3-4 years or more. Not only will your odds be better numerically, but you will have already made a name for yourself by assuming a position of leadership. Remember that all leaders are self-proclaimed... nobody ever gets designated as a leader by someone else. An initiative is so named because you have to take the initiative in order to create it.
So that’s the basic outline, of what you should be doing, as I see it at the moment. If you’re still doubting your luck, consider the plight of those who have preceded you. For fifteen years, the profession has gobbled up graduates at an astounding rate. Schools of architecture at the Universities of Miami and Notre Dame (which are the big-name schools with whom I am most familiar) have had multiple firms competing for each graduate on Career Day. But they weren’t hiring you to be a top designer; that’s what the partners do. Instead, once you got sucked into the machine, you found yourself doing toilet details and observation reports for what seemed like an eternity. And the profession is so all-consuming, with its deadlines and emergencies, that your chances of pursuing your own initiatives by night were very slim because you were mentally exhausted. And so while you might have made halfway-decent money after a few years, you didn’t become the leader of an initiative or cause; you were simply making a living. So don’t wish for that former reality... you’re far better off taking the big hit now and emerging as a leader.
Please comment below, and let’s have a discussion that builds a body of additional ideas about how to deal with this nightmare we’re up against.
~ Steve Mouzon
Tuesday, March 3, 2009 - 07:54 PM
Friday, February 26, 2010 - 11:41 AM
Some nice points in here and thanks for posting. I have to wonder though if this current mess and depletion of the ranks isn't more symptomatic of sustainable problems with the profession as a whole. It's long been a profession that 'eats its young' as they say and so when it becomes even more devalued as a professional endeavour you have to wonder why even pursue it any longer? This recession has confirmed for me that the really lucky ones are those that never decided to study architecture in the first place.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010 - 03:06 PM
While it's great to look for silver linings in our the stormy clouds of the Great Recession I think you might have gone to far. You probably need to talk to some recent grads who aren't able to find jobs and tell them they're the 'lucky ones' and see if they agree with you. I learned a tremendous amount in my first years of employment, the critical apprenticeship years. Architect's deal with technical matters and physical environments as their medium. I'm not sure going off and becoming a 'thought leader' is for everyone.
Friday, April 9, 2010 - 12:49 PM
Jay, I can't control or even have much influence over national and global circumstances. What I can influence is my own circumstance. For example, there's not a snowball's chance of most architecture students getting a job right now. So if I were a student, I could either choose to give up and do something else, or to make something good out of it. That's the intent of this post... to point out good that can come from the current circumstances if a person doesn't want to throw up their hands and surrender.
Monday, October 18, 2010 - 06:24 PM
Great post. There's nothing here I wouldn't really agree with. I've just finished 6 years of study in the UK and ended up as one of the top graduates in my year. I was one of the 'lucky' ones to get a job. One thing is for sure. Working at an architects is possibly one of the worse ways to use an architecture graduation. Most people working at the place were unhappy with what they were doing anyway. This was no different to 3 years ago when I was in practice. The architectural idyll never emerged. Consequently I left the job after 2 months, not because I was let go but because it was a complete waste of my education. You learn about history, sociology, politics, science, culture, art and so many other things at university. There's jobs out there such as advertising, teaching or pretty much anything else you can imagine that would make ten times more of a graduates skills than architecture that would be more rewarding and pay better. What is difficult is finding jobs out there outside of architecture that specify an architecture qualification. You need to let them know and as soon as they do they'll see you as gold dust. No other education provides people with such a rounded skill set. Furthermore, everyone knows that you're going to be hard working if you've got through in one piece. Likewise most architecture schools don't let you even consider that you could be a success outside of architecture. They want you to be the next Zaha or Gehry.
Monday, October 18, 2010 - 09:41 PM
Exactly... the massive disconnect between architectural education and practice has always been troublesome from both sides. Years ago when I had a normal practice, however, we did things so differently, both in design and production, that I finally made peace with the fact that I was going to have to train everyone anyway. I don't know of a profession out there with greater disparity between what is taught and what is practiced. What's the best explanation for this condition?
Thursday, May 19, 2011 - 04:54 PM
After having been an unemployed for two straight years- till november 2010, having a MArch (with honors) equivalent diploma (6 years study course in Romania)- I'm now over 28. I can honestly say that it hasn't been the recession alone that threw me out of the architectural work field. I got a high paying job in 2008 and quit it after abut 2 months, because I felt there was no way around inconsistency and shallowness in the design process in that organization. I had had other jobs before (construction and urbanism) and I could relate every time to the description of being sucked into a machine.
I now work in exhibition stand design to pay the bills and use as much as I can of my free time reading and thinking about urban theory, issues of urban inequality and the like. I got the opportunity to grow more on such interests because of unemployment time. I've volunteered in eco-villages and spent my time (and savings) in libraries (and their host cities) abroad. However in my job right now, there can be considerable overtime work demanded and it is likely to be similar in many fields related to architecture (production fields, deadline-driven) so ever since I decided to build back the savings I gradually became an intellectual wreck. The second important downfall- on the whole- has been a delay in my personal life (no talk of marriage, children, no house- because of course, no assets and no trace of material stability). So I still feel as though I'm in my 20s category by your classification.
In any case, in Romania the unemployment of young architects seems to be something of a tabu matter- discussions are smothered somehow and there seems to be an element of embarrassment. I've applied for advanced studies abroad and got an enthusiastic feedback (especially enthusiastic for my independent studies and activities after graduation), after suffering some rejection from the Romanian academia. For me this is all one picture and quite peculiar phenomenon...has there been no recession in the Romanian construction industry, is our culture hesitant with discussing difficulties or is it a question of professional pride and a certain ethics of behavior...
However, good post. I'll comment back in four years or more :) next two I'll immerse into an advanced masters in (international) urban development.
Thursday, May 19, 2011 - 06:22 PM
Thanks for this account, Ilinca! It's really tough to find the balance right now, but it's really important to not become the "intellectual wreck" you're describing. I've seen that happen to people, and when it becomes too tough, they usually give up their ideals... and then the rest of their life is spent just making a living. It's a really sad condition, but it happens countless times. As for the lack of material stability you describe, I have far fewer material things than I once did, and it actually feels really good. Moving from a 3,000 SF house down to a 747 SF condo required me to get rid of many things, but they were only dead weights anyway. Good luck, and please re-post here after awhile!