No More “Lost Generations”

by Mary-Margaret Zindren, EVP/Executive Director

Within the AEC industry, PPP loans have started to run out and furloughs, layoffs, and scaled-back hours and pay are pervasive. As many firms face a shallow well of prospective projects, the options available to deal with the economic impact are few. The impact of these budget-balancing actions on individuals is profound, affecting one’s ability to make ends meet in the short-term, on long-term career progression and earnings, and on physical and mental health.


Being laid off stirs waves of emotions that don’t subside quickly or easily – I know this from riding these waves with my husband when he was laid off a few years ago. Even among the silver linings of more time to spend with family and friends, to develop new skills, and to explore other career possibilities, there are often feelings of hurt, fear, depression, and isolation.


I’ve recently heard a number of people say, with earnest concern, “We’re going to have another lost generation of architects.” The reference, of course, is to the huge number of layoffs that occurred in architecture during the Great Recession, which disproportionately impacted people who were in entry-level and early-career positions. The hole left within firms once they recovered – the gap between entry-level and mid-career positions that makes traditional career progression more challenging – has widely, and understandably, been lamented.


I understand this concern. And at the same time, this framing itself should give us pause.


People are only “lost” from the profession if we allow them to be; if we don’t let the world of architecture be wide enough to hold everyone who is, has been, or could be a part of it.


The lost generation framing reinforces architecture as a small box that you are either within or outside of. When “traditional practice” is viewed as the only way to be a true architect; when licensure is seen as the only legitimizing threshold; when academia is dismissed as a lesser path; when those who leave architecture firms to join construction firms are pilloried; when we ignore racial wealth gaps and everyday race-based bias, gender bias and inequities, and barriers to career progression faced by people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people that make them more likely to be laid off or to face deep hardship once they are; when we let ourselves fall into these constrained mindsets, we shrink the world of architecture and undermine our collective success. Because once you are made to believe that you are outside the small box, if can feel like an insurmountable challenge to get back on the inside and you are more likely to take your talent, your energies and your wisdom elsewhere to a community where you feel seen and valued.


It doesn’t have to be this way. Each of us can make it our personal mission to reach out to and to stay connected with those we know who are laid off, furloughed, or who for other reasons choose temporary or more long-term paths that are different from traditional practice. Just like any networking, the value gained from being connected to others who are different from you can bring great insights and opportunities for growth.


Within the realm of traditional practice, we can also get more serious about creating glidepaths for those who choose to return to this type of work, once opportunities open back up. We can anticipate that particular skills might get rusty and that new technologies will become more commonplace. How can we plan and develop options for supporting people in jumpstarting their skills and knowledge? We can anticipate a desire to repeat past practices, such as contracting with individuals for part-time work or full-time work without benefits. How can these and other practices of the Great Recession be reviewed and retooled in a way that demonstrates that all team members are valued?


At AIA Minnesota, we are committed to doing all we can to keep this architecture community whole, applying learnings from the Great Recession and staying true to our values of Integrity, Passion, Inclusion and Empathy.


Two immediate actions:

1. We are making the AIA Minnesota Annual Conference (A’20) free to all AIA members who have been laid off or furloughed (including those from other states), and free to recent graduates of NAAB-accredited schools of architecture who have not been able to secure paid work within the field of architecture.

2. We will be proactively reaching out to individuals who have been furloughed or laid off in Minnesota to offer reduced dues or a dues exemption; we are committed to ensuring that no one drops their AIA membership or is unable to join the organization due to financial hardship.


You can help with this effort. Often, when people are furloughed or laid off, or when they graduate from architecture school, they don’t think to reach out to AIA Minnesota to let us know and to provide a new email address. If you are a firm leader and your staff team has been reduced, please reach out to those who have been let go to inform them of these opportunities to stay connected. If you have friends or former students who would benefit, please let them know. And if you know people who have felt boxed out by the profession of architecture yet are graduates of architecture school or have done work related to the field, encourage them to join our AIA Minnesota community as an associate or allied member.


The ways that architecture affects the lives of people are many; the ways to employ what is learned through an architecture degree program and through mentorship in the field are also many. At a time when empathy is so very needed, taking the inclusive path, the wide view, of who belongs within this architecture community holds real promise for the profession emerging more ready to recover from the economic and human toll of this pandemic; promise for emerging stronger and better than before.

View the August 2020 edition of Matrix.