The demands of the rising generation should be listened to – because they reflect what other staff want too, says Mark Middleton
Architecture is a slow profession. It takes time to get qualified, it takes patience to accumulate the right experience to build career credibility and it takes perseverance to build buildings. There is little instant gratification in our business. Its satisfactions come from the long, hard road travelled to realise architecture.
I remember a college tutor advising me not to build anything until I was 40 because I wouldn’t know enough. Of course I didn’t take this daunting advice but what is clear is that patience is a virtue in our profession. If these are truisms, how will the profession be shaped by the next cohort of students and young architects – described collectively as millennials – who are pilloried for being impatient and requiring instant gratification? With millennials destined to make up more than 75% of the workforce by 2025 should we not be considering the ways in which our businesses and the glacial pace of our profession could be adapted to appeal to this new generation of architects?
Definitions vary but if you were born between 1983 and 2001 then you can safely assume that you are a millennial. While it is always dangerous to generalise, there are established opinions about the issues and motivations of this group, most notably from cultural anthropologist and author Simon Sinek. He recognises that for some the term has become an invective, shorthand for someone who is entitled, commitment-phobic, sees avocado toast for breakfast as a birthright, and loyalty as anathema.
Sinek believes there is a need for greater leadership to be shown towards them and he finds the well-worn solutions of free food, bean bags and fussball inadequate and patronising. He blames the generational parenting regimes where millennials as children were given anything they wanted and were rewarded for participation and not achievement. He believes this has made a generation impatient and entitled. This manifests professionally as a desire to progress quickly without experience and to be rewarded whether there has been achievement or not.
After reading this I felt partially responsible and, despite recognising some of these traits, the analysis seemed unbalanced and unfairly negative. In my experience, millennials are also inquisitive, tech-savvy and creative. More so than my generation, they are globally focused and community minded. But crucially they are more likely to be poorer than their parents – which probably explains their quest for value in education and maximisation of their rewards in employment. But who doesn’t want that!
So is this a real problem for architecture? According to recent RIBA statistics, 44% of all part I students decide not to return to do their part II, which suggests that careers outside architecture are becoming a greater draw. Millennials are increasingly pursuing alternative opportunities that better fit their priorities, which means there is an issue here. So what can architectural firms change to appeal to this new generation?
Firstly, smaller firms are likely to appeal to the millennial architect, given that start-ups are an attractive proposition for this generation. These firms have an all-hands-on-deck approach: you don’t need experience to hold senior roles; there are varied tasks; you don’t have to wait to manage teams; and “achievement” in smaller companies is more readily gained. These experiences are more difficult to achieve in larger firms but not impossible.
Grimshaw has had success setting up several smaller studios from scratch, which function like start-ups and provide all the aforementioned opportunities, for young and old. Big offices could also consider breaking down larger groups into semi-autonomous smaller units, as some colleges do. But this can create silos of influence within practices and conflicting priorities, so should be approached with caution.
Consideration may have to be given to structuring formal feedback and performance reviews. For the social media generation that keeps a tally of likes – which translates as instantaneous and constant feedback and reassurance – perhaps more frequent and shorter formal sessions between senior and junior architects would chart progress more closely and offer confidence around progression. Typically, architectural firms are simply structured with very few levels of seniority, but this can mean long gaps between promotions. A more granulated approach where there are more levels with specific targets would allow the acquisition of experience to be mapped and the long road between advancements to be understood and progression measured.
Aside from these structural changes, architects could do much better in explaining the wider social benefits of their work to the public and in prioritising their firm’s philanthropic endeavours, involving as many people as possible. Anything that adds to a greater sense of community and makes the office a learning environment with a varied social calendar is essential.
While I feel these kinds of changes can be genuinely beneficial, I am unconvinced this is an issue unique to millennials. Rather it is a reflection of the workforce as a whole. You may observe staff demanding more promotions these days well in advance of demonstrated achievement, and we have many more architects leaving to join non-architectural start-ups, or merely leaving to climb mountains or work for a charity. There are differences for sure but is it any better or worse than when I was younger? I don’t think so.
My suggestions work regardless of age, generation, or whatever term is being bandied around at the time. All employees seem to be demanding more from their employers: more social benefits, more flexibility and more accountability, and if it turns out this is precipitated by the millennial generation then that’s a good thing.
While the norms of running a practice are changing, the nature of the art itself remains intact: architecture is a long, intense process that requires patience and whether you are a millennial or a generation X-er like myself you need to learn that over everything else.