When Steven Ratley graduated with a B.Arch from Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design in May 2011, job prospects for aspiring architects were bleak. He and his college roommate, another architecture major named Kalin Cannady, picked up and moved to San Francisco. “Since you can’t control that you’re unemployed, you can at least control where you’re unemployed,” says Ratley, now 27, who believed that San Francisco would foster two entrepreneurial types with dreams of entering the design profession.
The move paid off. After two months job-hunting and using the free Wi-Fi at a neighborhood coffee shop, Ratley and his roommate were hired by the café’s owner to design an outdoor space for the business. Suddenly, Ratley was putting his architecture education into practice and getting a crash course in contracts, city regulations, and business management.
On the surface, this seems a typical, if auspicious, kind of career development. A young architect-in-training gets a modest first commission. But unravel the components of this story and you discover a 21st-century spin. First, consider the funding. Without solid job prospects after graduation, Ratley and Cannady created a campaign on Kickstarter—the online website whose funding now outpaces brick-and-mortar stalwarts like the National Endowment for the Arts—and raised $3,000 to help underwrite their move and subsidize independent design work as they hunted for jobs in established architecture firms. They used state-of-the-art laser technology to create customized thank you notecards that would entice bidders to give. “We had a product, people liked it, and we got funded,” Ratley says.
Then, there’s the nature of the commission. The outdoor space that Ratley helped design wasn’t attached to the coffee shop; rather, it was a Parklet, a parking space on a city street in front of the café, which the owner purchased for use as public green space through a city initiative. The program of turning parking spaces into parks grew out of a 2005 intervention by Rebar, a locally based art-and-design firm that famously fed a parking meter for several hours, rolled out sod and benches, and transformed pavement into an impromptu oasis. The event inspired annual PARK(ing) days in cities around the country.
Some might argue that transforming a parking space into a park doesn’t exactly qualify as “architecture.” In Ratley’s case, none of the design work that he performed in the commission of that job counted toward licensure and the requisite hours necessary for NCARB’s Intern Development Program (IDP), because the project didn’t meet criteria for work experience established by NCARB.
“We were doing so many things that would count toward IDP,” Ratley says, but the work happened outside of an architecture firm and wasn’t overseen by an NCARB-approved supervisor. “You’re not even considered to be on the path yet,” Ratley says. “So, because of the economy, I couldn’t advance my career even though I wasn’t just sitting around. I was making things happen, but it didn’t count because it fell outside the regimented, hierarchical system that has been set up.”
The eldest members of the Millennial generation, defined loosely as those born between 1980 and 2000, turn 33 this year. Millennials such as Ratley are now maturing into the workforce, and with their arrival comes an attendant shift in perspective and priority.
In Millennials Rising, Neil Howe and William Strauss argue that each generation rebels against its forebears. Millennials, they write, will bristle against Gen-X’ers “over-the-top free agency, social splintering, cultural exhaustion, and civic decay,” and will correct for the excesses of the Boomer’s “narcissism, impatience … and constant focus on talk” over action. One cartoon in the book shows a child telling her father in a breakfast-table showdown, “But daaad, I don’t want to grow up to be smug like you.”
Defined as confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change—and encompassing the most ethnically diverse demographics of any American generation to date (61 percent white and 39 percent Black, Hispanic, Asian, or other, according to the Pew Research Center)—Millennials are coming of age in the midst of profound cultural and global change. “For Millennials, this shift will focus on the needs of the community more than the individual, so it is likely to induce large-scale institutional change,” Howe and Strauss write. “Thus, the word rebellion is not entirely appropriate. The word revolution might better catch the spirit of what lies ahead.”
Design leaders have already grasped that this rising generation, along with rapid changes in technology and global business practice, will have a revolutionary effect on architecture. Technology, like BIM, will claim a central role as the profession moves from a document-driven business to a data-driven model. Sustainability will not just be a priority to Millennial associates, but a standard of practice, and the complexity of infrastructure and building needs around the world will demand an integrated approach.
Millennials, for their part, will view work as an activity more than a place, and will likely transform office life, according to a 2012 survey by Knoll. At the AIA’s 2008 convention, Meg Brown, Director of Human Resources for Perkins+Will, led a session titled “Tethered Millennials,” about hiring, training, and retaining young workers. She found the lecture hall populated by seasoned firm leaders miffed over the evolving landscape of social media and the willful requests of their newest hires.
“Five years ago they were looking at the proliferation of social media and things like Facebook and thinking, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” Brown says. “The younger generation was coming into firms hungrier for upward mobility in a quicker way as compared to the Boomers, but also interested in having a life outside of work.”
Today, “there’s more of an awareness that we can’t just come to lectures and read about this, that we have to start working side-by-side and leverage relationships,” Brown says. “Firm leaders are thinking that they have to really start preparing the next generation.”
Young associates can no longer be left to languish in cubicles churning out grunt work while waiting to earn a leadership role in the firm, not when talent in the industry is in such short supply. The 2012 AIA firm survey revealed that architecture firms cut staff by nearly a third since 2008. As the markets show signs of minimal recovery, this could lead to what strategy and management consultant Ray Kogan, president of Kogan & Co., calls a “talent scramble.”