Millennials vs. Baby Boomers: Bridging the Generation Gap in Architecture

Luke Arehart Luke Arehart

There is a Grand Canyon–esque divide that exists between the baby boomer and millennial generations within architecture. The Great Recession in the late 2000s is mostly responsible for creating this gap, which seemingly skips over an entire generational category, Gen X. This void has limited the amount of transitional opportunities between generational groups leading to the necessity of creative techniques to bridge the gap.

Tell me if this transition sounds familiar. You leave architecture school — a place of designing to imaginary budgets, clients and constraints, where you learn about Koolhaas and Zumthor while pondering the philosophical and existential qualities of charred wood — and move into a job where you work on handrail details for weeks on end. How can this cliff of a transition be bridged?

Current principals and firm owners have paid their dues for many years and have worked effectively, diligently and meticulously toward truly understanding the practice of architecture. However, those hard lessons learned over time are sometimes not easily parted with or readily shared. There also seems to exist a curiosity — along with some undertones of suspicion — when new aspiring architects or “interns” enter the workforce alongside established baby boomers.

For the most part, baby boomers appear to want millennials to learn and gain experience in the same fashion that they did when they were coming up. This can create some resentment toward those that don’t have to handwrite annotations, for example. Perhaps this stems mostly from the often un-communicated expectations and assumptions that each group has for the other. I think it boils down to two ways of doing things that are a touch too far apart on the generational spectrum of core values and abilities. Given this gap, what happens to the profession of architecture? How does it evolve? Can it evolve?

Today’s young architect comes out of school armed with technological knowledge unmatched by any group before them, from 3D printing to the newest innovations in building science and sustainability. These freshly minted architecture grads have been experimenting for the last five years, which in turn represents a wealth of knowledge and opportunities for those available to listen. This new energy among millennials complements the vast amount of knowledge and experience that the baby boomers have accumulated. The trick is to find the optimal combination of the two generational camps; it doesn’t need to be all of one or the other.

Can baby boomers and millennials coexist peacefully in the architecture studio? Image via OPSEU Local 110

One specific arrangement that works toward this combination is the Apprenticeship Model. An apprenticeship is where someone takes a vested interest in your development and does their best to ensure that you are as successful as possible in your own budding career. This model helps bridge this specific gap between generations while percolating and benefitting from the eagerness and energy of the millennial against the knowledge and practice of the boomer.

This is a far cry from what is sometimes experienced now, which can sound like:

“Can you teach me how to … ”

“Shouldn’t you have learned that in school?”

This is the disconnect.

The cost benefit of an apprenticeship needs to make sense to firm owners and those that are experienced. While some firm owners might think “millennials are lazy and don’t want to work hard,” the reality is that they want to work hard but also want to be invited to the table as part of the discussion. They want the chance to add value and show their worth. It is important to find an avenue to let this eagerness and (in)experience add value. Sharing now helps smooth the baton-passing transition later.

Older and younger generations of architects can come into conflict over working styles and philosophies; image via Naturopathic Doctor News and Review

The unfortunate flip side to the apprenticeship model is the tendency to keep valuable knowledge “tight-lipped” and unshared. While it’s understandable to want every advantage possible in this competitive industry, the reluctance to share is a detriment to all. Perhaps during the Great Recession, licensed architects were mostly preoccupied with saving their own skins and practices to offer time and energy to share opportunities and offer apprenticeship to others. But this trend, among others, is responsible for forever altering that particular group of Great Recession–era recent grads, laid off professionals and the future of the practice of architecture.

It’s time to recognize that a post-Recession win-win scenario is available and possible.

If we collectively can’t recognize this new win-win scenario, these two generational groups could prove to be too different in values and process and an imminent abrupt shift becomes more likely — to officially usher in a new way of doing things all at once — creating a group that no longer waits their turn to be handed something but, instead, takes it.

The path to licensure has become less aligned with the available choices of practice to today’s architect. This process, which once rang true for everyone, does not anymore for this new, modern crop of divergent-architects. The current system to “elevate the standing of the profession” needs to evolve to include new opportunities for those educated and interested in architecture. Without support and guidance from those already in the profession, different subcultures and groups are popping up and trying to find meaning against what they learned in school, discovering what is ultimately available to them out in the “real world.”

© Monkey Business Images

© Monkey Business Images

Is a more collaborative approach possible? Image via Black Diamond Leadership

Unfortunately, there do not exist very many shepherds to help this crop of architects make the transition into the profession at the exact point that it is needed most. Perhaps this is by design. This happens to be the specific group in which individuals don’t have much buying power. They are between their college professors and student-loan-funded educational experience and the entry-level intern salary, which is $0 per hour in some cases. Without money for tuition or membership dues, who is going to take you under their wing on their own dime? You have to get creative and forge your own way.

Thankfully, today’s architecture grad is optimistic and geared toward the previously mentioned win-win scenario of sharing and collaboration to achieve the best solution, guided under a knowledgeable and experienced baby boomer counterpart. An exciting hybrid that I’ve seen that is bridging between boomers and millennialsis someone that works very hard to respect the past and pay their dues to build a foundation, all while showing a distinct interest in the disruption of the dogma created by the establishment. The dichotomy within these individuals is envious and interesting.

One great case study for this type of hybrid, and an answer to this divide, is Michael Riscica from I know Michael as a very intelligent, hardworking dynamo. He put in his time at some notable architecture firms around the city and recently wrapped up his fourth year as an architect with the City of Portland to start his own firm, Michael Riscica Architecture (MRA). He is a licensed architect, which means he sat down and ground away until that goal was achieved — a journey documented nicely on his own website.

If you know Michael, you know he has CRAZY HUSTLE. My favorite definition of hustle is: one who does so many things that people can only wonder how that is accomplished in the same amount of time that they have … He publishes his own books, invents educational programs, bikes across the country and gets certified as a yoga instructor all while taking meetings, inspiring others, volunteering in the classroom and networking at various events across Portland and the nation. Michael is illustrative of the ideal hybrid; he has the grounding and work ethic of a boomer with the dreams and innovation of a millennial. This is a great example of an unwavering practice of making a plan, sticking to it and executing — every day.

We can bridge this generational gap together, collaboratively. We give a little in the hopes to get a lot. Millennials offer up patience, while baby boomers offer up trust. We celebrate each other’s positives and forgive the negatives. We simultaneously recognize experience and expertise with energy and innovation, together. We communicate expectations openly and don’t get frustrated at hiccups along the way. In short, bridging the generational gap in architecture is about acknowledging, respecting and working within the abilities and limitations of both groups!

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