Shifting Gears in Today’s Workforce
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

Since the Great Recession, one out of three Americans who planned to retire will continue to work indefinitely. The rest? They might have to work at least part-time, even if they’re expecting to collect on retirement accounts, pensions, Social Security benefits, and investment dividends. Are architects really like “the rest,” though?

According to AARP’s 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey, the average expected age for retirement among all Americans 50 or older has increased since the mid-2000s, from 64 in 2004, peaking at 67 in 2012, and back down to 66 in 2014. It’s true that the Great Recession of 2008 maps neatly onto that upward trend, with its nadir in 2008 corresponding to shrinking confidence in profitability and personal finances generally. But recessions are abstractions of everyday realities, and if you’re in your late 50s or 60s, you’ve already been working long enough to have seen what collateral damage looks like at least three times in 1990, 2001, and 2008.

One of the major differences for boomers between 2008 and the previous recessions of 1990 and 2001 is that this time around many of them had college-age children. According to a 2017 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the number of Americans over the age of 60 taking out student loans on behalf of their children ballooned from 700,000 in 2005 to 2.8 million by 2015 (owing, in part, to the skyrocketing cost of college tuition and room and board, too). And, let’s not forget about the unscrupulous lending practices of that period, with some schools pushing “preferred lenders.” The net result for some of these parents was accruing massive amounts of debt—worth north of $100,000— at a time when some of them hadn’t yet finished paying off their own houses. The rise in mortgage debt—or what The Washington Post’s Rodney Brooks called “the new retirement time bomb”—poses an equal if not greater threat to boomers, whether they have kids or not. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), 30 percent of Americans over the age of 65, and 21.2 percent over the age of 75, are still paying off their home mortgages on either a primary or secondary residence. In real numbers, the CPFB puts the median mortgage debt among Americans over the age of 65 at $79,000.

So how do today’s architects view retirement? We spoke to five architects and designers at various stages in their careers: from age 27 and headed down the path to licensure to age 62 and seriously considering what to do at age 70 and beyond. One trait they all share is a deep need to wring the most out of their skills for the benefit of their firms and their clients before it’s time to move on.

Rusty Walker, AIA
Partner, Holabird & Root, Chicago
Firm Size: 50–55
Age: 48

Your portfolio sometimes doesn’t mature until you’re my age, or even older than I am. But you are still gaining experience along the way. We basically have a lot of people [in our firm] that are homegrown partners—this was their first job and are partners now. I came in mid-career and have advanced to partner. In the first 10 to 15 years of my career, there was extremely high attrition [among my peers]. The people that stuck with it are doing extremely well now, and have made principal level. Folks who moved on, because they were looking for different experiences, have also done well. In the first 10 to 15 years, folks jumped to the development side or the university side to teach—and my generation was almost completely wiped out by the two recessions. Right now you could count on one hand how many architects are around in their 40s. I’m 48 now, and a lot of the people I graduated with moved on.

For each generation that I interact with, there are differences. There are people who see it as a job. There are people who see it as a career. There are people who see it as a calling. And the folks who see it as a calling are never leaving. When you take on a partner role, like I have, there’s a real need to bring the firm along with what you’ve acquired.

There’s a balance, though, as you think that you need to get out of the way at some point—and you want to create a smooth transition. We have a saying here: Being a good leader is about getting over yourself.

My retirement plans? My wife and I will go to Colorado. My firm has a mandatory retirement age of 70, so at that point I’ll have to step down. I should say, though, that there’s an interesting quality of legacy firms, as we are, that we are constantly thinking about the next generation. That’s important to us.

Jennifer Matthews, Assoc. AIA
Associate, Array Architects, Washington, D.C.
Firm Size: 150
Age: 27

I think I could someday be comfortable with retirement if I felt completely at peace with the idea that I have utilized my skills to the best of my ability in all aspects. I am currently taking advantage of, and strengthening, the technical design skills I have, but I also focus on my leadership skills by developing programs that assist emerging professionals and students.

To really be comfortable approaching the end of our professional careers, we owe it to ourselves to tap into our strengths and use them, whether it is within a traditional path of architecture or a nontraditional one. If I am certain that I have successfully helped the profession progress through each of the skills I define as a strength, I would be okay with making the decision that I have given all that I can.

Although I currently work at an architecture firm and am pursuing licensure, I remain interested in other aspects of architecture as it pertains to programming and professional development for students and emerging professionals. I maintain a presence in the leadership and advocacy realm of architecture, where I can speak to going through the traditional process of licensure and using that knowledge and experience to become part of the solution.

I admire my generation’s ability to step outside our comfort zones and adapt to change for the sake of progress, because we need individuals who are not afraid to go against the norm to create the change we wish to see in our profession. We value stability and want to be comfortable, as previous generations did; however, we are also interested in accomplishing goals bigger than ourselves and contributing to causes that have an impact beyond our own lives and careers.

It is important for employers to take advantage of the leadership abilities and professional interests of their younger employees. There are some firms who do not encourage young employees’ multifaceted skills because they feel that the particular individual was hired for [one] certain skill, or because the implementation of [other] skills might take away from daily duties of architectural production. But a successful employer should embrace all skills and allow their employees to act on them. That is what we do at Array; our leadership encourages ideas and provides opportunities and support to execute them.

George Knight, AIA
Founder and Principal, Knight Architecture, New Haven, Conn.
Firm Size: 4
Age: 49

I’m 49, and am happy to report that many of my contemporaries are still practicing architecture. Predictably, some of them have pursued careers collateral to architecture, like planning, development, teaching, graphics, etc. No doubt that 2008 was a body blow, and it changed the way I approached my own firm, certainly. But the group that I grew up with shared a similar love for the work. I think nimbleness is central to my peer group, drawing in other disciplines and being flexible about the kind of work we take on. I teach at Yale, and I have found that the energy and quality of work the students produce is undimmed from the energy and quality of the work that my peers were doing in school a generation ago. The world needs architecture more than ever—not simply because of the patterns of contemporary demography, but qualitatively as well.

Advancement is possibility, and one of the things I’ve tried to do in my firm is to expect and appreciate contributions from staff at every level. I’m excited that, when people first start here, they feel empowered to make contributions that are perhaps above their level. There are no discrete offices in our space—it’s one big room—and we try to create a salon environment so that open interaction can occur. At a very small firm, a tiered arrangement does not make sense. When we were around eight or nine people— before the recession, a number that I want to return to soon—we had to have tiers to organize teams. And I expect to reorganize once we grow again, so that our designers can have a defined position relative to others—not to create a power hierarchy, but to create clarity.

When I worked for Cesar Pelli & Associates, it was upwards of a hundred people in New Haven alone. But because they had strategic alliances with firms around the world, those hundred did the work of a thousand people—and they could produce a staggering amount of architecture. I took a great deal of inspiration from that office. Certainly, as you would expect with a seasoned office, there were tiers there, yet one never felt that those tiers were oppressive. They presented a kind of organizational clarity, defining relationships between the principals, among project teams, and within specific projects. Cesar always went out of his way to know everyone on his staff. My first week he came over to me to introduce himself, we had a brief exchange, and I eventually worked my way up to being a senior associate.

One of the practices that was instrumental—and perhaps to a lesser degree still is—was the Pelli office’s reliance on physical models to study and present architectural ideas. Cesar came out of Eero Saarinen’s office, which also made use of extraordinary physical models, and there it was frequently the entry-level person’s task to get really good at being a model builder. We had the same system at Pelli’s office. If you’re a model builder, in general, you are forced to address gaps in the design directions you receive on paper sketches and drawings. Starting as an avid model builder myself, I found that to be a fabulous opportunity to contribute to projects, even in minor things.

Retirement means the same thing to me today as it did on my first day 25 years ago. I want a greater amount of free time for vacations, for instance, but I love working every day—and I don’t expect that to change. I won’t be content if I don’t feel productive.

A.J. Sustaita, AIA
Associate, Corgan, Houston
Firm Size: 604
Age: 39

I firmly believe that architects can make money, have a successful career, and support a family. I am a second-generation architect, following in the footsteps of my father before me. Growing up, my family was always comfortable and well provided for. To me, that is the definition of success.

I love speaking to emerging professionals younger than me or around my age about the financial potential for our profession. In my opinion, the financial aspect of an individual’s career can work itself out if you find the right firm and work towards ambitious goals. Having spent over 20 years working in architecture with a family of my own now, I can state with all certainty that architecture will provide a good life for us.

My ultimate career goal is to become a principal at Corgan. Although that end result may be several years away, I’m fortunate to work for a firm that provides a clear path from my current position to where I want to be in the future. It also should be noted that our firm leaders are very supportive regarding professional development. That’s the way it should be for all emerging professionals: the ability to sit down with senior-level staff and map out goals, as well as the path to reaching those milestones.

The present is always the right time to start thinking about long-term goals, especially when it comes to retirement. For me, successful retirement means the freedom to walk away whenever I am ready. I have a minimum age of 65 in mind, but when I reach that age I may find a passion for mentoring and developing the next generation of architects and leaders in architecture.

I want to have the freedom to accommodate those motivations in the latter stages of my career. In that sense, retirement should be a large part of our current conversation when it comes to work-life balance. For me, that’s retiring between the ages of 65 and 70. Working beyond those ages is not something I want to do. Ideally, I’m going to work hard and make my mark while training the next generation to lead when I’m ready to bring that balance to life.

David Haresign, FAIA
Principal, Bonstra Haresign, Washington, D.C.
Firm Size: 26
Age: 62

Our firm does essential urban mixed-use work, and we attract talented young people who aspire to be well-rounded urban architects. Our folks tend to stay with the firm for long periods of time, and we hire three to five people each year—in a robust year. Usually one or two of them are new graduates, and one or two of them are seasoned folks with a lot of experience. We’re active in the schools as critics and through teaching, so we are able to scout and recruit very talented folks there. Our firm is set up to provide a great postgraduate education, where all are exposed to a full range of architecture. They’re not pigeonholed into one thing because we want to nurture well-rounded practitioners.

I am not certain that I’ll ever fully stop working as an architect. I’ve never really thought about retirement; I just figured I’d just die at my desk. When I first started as an architect, I was very hungry and driven—I worked long hours that were consistent with high achievers in my peer group. Sixty hours a week was average then; I’m the oldest architect in our firm, and I still am close to averaging that now.

Other people in our lives—like my wife, Patricia—may have their own vision of our future, and hers is where we both work a little less and we have the opportunity to enjoy time together. Neither of us is ready to fully cash in our chips and stop working. We’re both fulfilled professionally, but we would like—in five or six years—to slow the pace a hair. I may feel differently as that number approaches, but by the time I’m 70 years old, I’d like to be divested from the business.

Whenever cash flow is slow, I tend to wake up in the middle of the night. I’m a worrier by nature, and I am always wondering how I can do something differently or better. I’d like to feel a little less pressure in that regard, however, to be able to focus on other things.

My partner [Bill Bonstra, FAIA] is 56, and there are other folks in their 50s, a few in their 40s, and lots and lots in their 20s and 30s. I think we have a nice spread in our own office, in terms of generations. The folks in their early 50s are kind of early Gen Xers, and the folks in their 40s are mid–Gen Xers—that’s a transitional cohort. They want balance in their lives, but on the other hand they will work extra to make something happen.

I like what I do. I like the impact that we have as architects—creating memorable experiences and dignified places for people to live and work. I still design as much as I want to, now in an even more collaborative role with our talented studio members, and the design work we’re doing is terrific. I’m pleased with that, and I’m pleased with the ability of our firm to keep the design coming at a very high level. As long as my partner, Bill, and I are satisfied with our ability to impact the work positively, and we are still accepted by the next generation of firm leaders, we will work to contribute to our firm’s legacy and future.

Steve Cimino also contributed to this story.