by Zach Mortice
AIArchitect Assistant Editor
Architecture, it has been said, is an old man’s game. If you get something built before you start receiving unsolicited AARP newsletters in the mail, whoopee, treat yourself to an ice cream cone. This isn’t likely to change soon. We are still securely in the hands of members of Tom Brokaw’s unremittingly lionized Greatest Generation and the eternal cultural behemoth/punching bag known as the Baby Boomers. What is new (as evidenced from Marsha Littell’s piece this week in AIArchitect) is the hand-wringing about how to make the newest generation of architects entering the profession happy.
Unceremoniously dubbed “Generation Y” and born roughly between Grenada and Monica Lewinsky, we (yup—life without cell phones is a foggy memory for me) are what happened when the Baby Boomers started applying their wrecking ball talents of demographic reformation to starting families. As Littell mentions, our parents were more likely to be financially well-off, and showered us with praise and affluence while carting us off to oboe lessons, fencing practice, and transcendental meditation sessions with our guru. We were told we could do anything and were plunged into everything. As hilarious as it sounds, we absolutely believe life is a complete meritocracy because that’s what Daddy told us on our 16th birthday when he handed us the keys to a brand new Volvo. We find unfairness disorienting and quite frankly unpleasant.
From our nearly pre-natal exposure to the Internet and computers as well as our parents’ indulgence, we’re used to constant feedback loops and require heaping amounts of praise. True, a lifetime of exposure to TV and Internet videos about pop culture happenings that have the lifespan of a spark have degraded our attention spans to about 30 seconds and falling, but in those 30 seconds we can absorb, sort, and synthesize more information than any previous generation. (As I write this I am also sending an e-mail, reading an article on Slate, mentally reconstructing my relationship with my kindergarten teacher, and calculating pi to 797 digits).
But these very same active, regimented childhoods and family-fostered dreams of world domination make us wild-eyed workaholics (or more accurately “achieveaholics”). We have impossibly high expectations of ourselves. That’s why we don’t stick around for long. We think after two years, we’ll know all there is to know about a job, we’ll have single handedly made the place we work far better that it was, everyone will remember us with beaming smiles and misty eyes, and it will be less humid in the summer and people won’t shove anymore on the subway.
In case you hadn’t noticed, yes, we’re a self-centered bunch.
This can distort our idea of professional responsibility. We are the bottom line. We consider making sure we’re in a rewarding work environment as our most pressing professional concern, not adhering to institutional loyalty. (Case in point—I once quit a decent, full-time job to move to a dying, decaying city 1,000 miles away to write about art and music for no money. I consider this the highest possible expression of myself as a human.)
Littell does get one thing wrong. She says Gen Y’ers want a friendly and connected workplace culture, and that they see work as only one part of their life. She’s right about this first point, but that’s because work is our entire life, and we love this. Since it’s all we’ve got, yeah, we might as well stick around for the after-work happy hour and weekend picnic.
Most of the young professionals I know demand that their jobs give their life meaning. That desire isn’t unique to any generation and is probably present in all. So there’s a piece of common ground to ease your mind the next time you catch your intern using your firm’s letterhead for another job’s cover letter.
What do you think?