I’d like to veer off on a tangent a bit, and I hope you’ll forgive this indulgence. I guess you could call it a philosophical rumination on the whole subject of jobs, work, careers, and earning a living. It’s going to be long and rambling, so be warned in advance.
What prompted this is an essay Ran posted earlier in the week entitled Why I left news by Allyson Bird. This comes during the same week with the confluence of enough events, that even a skeptic like me has enough faith to sit up and pay attention. I've begun to interpret such things as a message, because everything is ultimately, your own interpretation anyway, so It’s best to pay attention. I don't like to talk about myself much, but I think a lot of people are struggling with these issues right now, so, in the spirit of the above post, I think getting some thoughts out there might help people besides just me.
I read this story of walking away from a profession with great interest not because I am a journalist, but because the issues she raises are so true to my own profession – the endless hours, the toil, the sense that you’re never off the clock, the constant stress levels, the years of sacrifice, the messianic sense of being "called" to something greater than yourself, the abysmal pay relative to education levels, the time taken away from your social life, the toll on one's health, and fundamentally, the extreme disjuncture between the idea of the profession and actual practice. You'll hear about all of this in spades if you've spent any time around the profession of architecture at all.
I would say if anything, these are even more extreme in architecture, perhaps the most extreme in any profession. The architecture students I know are the ultimate idealists –they love buildings and they love the idea of being an architect that they have been sold since childhood, with smart-looking, eager young people pouring over blueprints and building models of the next great museum or skyscraper or convention center that everyone is talking about that's going to transform the community. They invariably enter school with heroic visions of Frank Lloyd Wright and Howard Roarke and Louis Kahn and Corbu and Frank Gehry, visions that schools do little to discourage, and in fact rely on (schools feed on the idealism and naivete of the young like a succubus). They plan on having their "vision" of architectural design "change the world," and spend countless lonely days and sleepless nights making that vision a reality with beautiful presentation boards filled with panels full of meticulously crafted plans, photorealistic renderings, and constructing beautiful (and expensive) basswood models with translucent plastic on all the windows and real LED lights inside. The get indoctrinated by tenured professors into the whole idea of architecture as a "calling" and the need to "sacrifice" to make their visions a reality. They spend massive amounts of their own money, sometimes going deeply into debt, and working for free or sometimes even at a loss just to get experience and a foot in the door. They stay up late nights, neglecting their friends and their health, eating bad food, all just to satisfy that idealism. They spend years in school going into debt, putting off families, moving from place to place, switching jobs, and jumping through hoops all to get that elusive license.
Then reality hits. The reality is that that architecture has always a boom-and-bust profession and during the bust times, massive amounts of architects are laid off, unable to support themselves or their families. Many end up living at home for extended periods of time, sometimes years, assuming they have a home to go to. The reality is that unless you come from a wealthy family and have connections, it is doubtful you will ever be financially able to hang out a shingle or realize whatever "visions" you thought you had in design school. The reality is that it is fiendishly difficult to find a decent job even in flush times and the competition is fierce. The reality is, so many people are in love with the idea of being an architect that they will work for next to nothing, and that is your competition. The reality is that the deadlines are brutal, the liability is high, and the profit margins are slim, and the financial rewards are nonexistent. The reality is that most construction in this country is suburban residential housing, and most of what remains aside from that is utilitarian crud, with only a microscopic percentage of buildings built annually requiring any sort of "design" thought at all. And after years of this, the contrast between the beautiful masterpieces you spent sleepless nights rendering that would transform the urban fabric and the cinderblock monstrosities or corporate frankenstein pastiches that you are now putting together becomes unbearable. After you've drawn yet enough interior bathroom elevations or checked for conflicts between the ceiling hangers and ductwork, you realize that architecture for most people is not what they told you it was.
And then one day you begin to see your friends getting stable jobs, buying homes, having kids, and establishing careers and climbing the ladder with steady raises and promotions and it all becomes too much. At a certain age you realize you've been putting in extreme hours for years and have nearly no money to show for it, no savings of any sort, no retirement plan, and no house; you could face the ax in the next round of layoffs in the next downturn; you're never going to get to design so much as a kitchen; you're never going to be a principal, sit in an office with a door, or meet a client, and you're getting eye strain and carpal tunnel from sitting in front of a computer all day. You realize that average tradesman on the job site makes more than you, has a better benefits package, gets to go home at 4:00 PM every day, and doesn't have to field phone calls at 10:00 at night. And you finally realize architecture school sold you a dream only available to a scant few people who were on that path since before they were born.
To a lot of people who come from comfortable middle-class families with middle-class expectations, this is more than they can bear. They have a peer group, you see, and that is who they judge themselves against. They went into a profession that has a certain image, a certain respectability, and they expected to be treated the same as their high-school and college classmates and family friends who went into more stable professions such as engineering, computer programming, corporate lobbying, and high finance, and here they are earning less than the day-shift manager at the local Speedway. Sure they have the title and the prestige, but it's hard to put money down on real estate or a boat when your job could go away with the next real-estate bubble bursting. You might earn respect when you tell people you are an architect, but that does not pay the bills.
How much can you sacrifice when you have little to begin with? As the joke goes, the way to make million dollars being an architect is to start out working with two million. In the days of Thomas Jefferson, architecture was little more than a rich man's hobby, and we deceive ourselves by not acknowledging how little this has changed, and how much this still defines the DNA of the profession.
So this is the reality, and as I read Ms. Bird's essay, I thought back to the dozens of similar stories I have read over the years with architects instead of reporters as the protagonists, slowly coming to the realization that the profession eats its young, that it's a game for the rich, that it chews you up and spits you out, that it takes more than you have to give and that their love for the profession is largely an unrequited one. They tell of how they've finally found happiness and stability by realizing that the idea of an architect that they held in their heads for so long was just that- an idea, with no semblance to reality, and that once they let go of it the better off they were. That they finally became truly happy by letting go of their dream, and with it the brutal work schedule, the miserable pay and benefits, the poor working conditions, the pervasive uncertainly, and found happiness elsewhere with their families and a modicum of stability and disposable income. That they eventually realized that their career was not who they were, and that there was a life beyond it.
There is, I think, a current of this in nearly all professions today, and I think you could find a similar confession from just about everyone, from IT staff forced to put in useless features and deal with pervasive job outsourcing and H1-B visas, to loan officers who are pressured to make risky loans to people who should not have received them, to marketing people who are pressured to bring in more business every year no matter what the state of the economy, to sleep-deprived doctors and nurses who are forced to see ever more and sicker patients with fewer resources and less reimbursement. Sit down for a beer with any professional in America today, in any industry, and they are liable to tell you just how screwed up their industry and profession are. Because it is pervasive, it is everywhere, it is across the board. Ran also posted a link to another essay about why it sucks to be an opera singer. Yes, apparently even being a star sucks in this day an age for a lot of people.
Those stories about leaving architecture that I am familiar with appeared mainly on forums over the years that were frequented by architects. Indeed, I'm rather surprised that Googling "why I left architecture" yields no similar confessionals. This can not be that essay, at least not yet, because I am technically still in the game. But I was reminded of all this again by some other events which happened this week.
This week, we had a couple of college students who were given the run of the place to see what being an architect is all about. They spent time with some of my coworkers and friends, but I tend to avoid speaking to students, jaded and bitter as I am, and management is wise enough to keep them away from me. I'm always a bit confused by all these attempts to enourage young people to go into the profession, when there are already not enough jobs to go around, and that is unlikely to change in a period of economic decline. I doubt much encouragment is needed.
I also find it odd that the ones who are usually put out front and center to speak to students are the "winners," those privileged few in the upper echelons who successfully climbed the greasy pole or had the resources and wherewithal to extract exactly what they wanted from the profession. Of course they're going to give a skewered view to impressionable young minds. They're not going to have you speak to those who are burned out or having second thoughts, or those who are not practiced at saying exactly what they are supposed to, although one of my colleagues reported giving them "a dose of reality." Let's hope so.
And I've had many frank conversations over these past few weeks with many coworkers who are as unhappy as I am. I've had conversations with one of my supervisors, the closest person I could come to calling a mentor, saying he just wanted to leave the field after years of excessive hours, stress and lack of vacation. Like many of the most able and talented people where I work, he is not nearly given enough credit for what he does in the ass-kissing, hyper-political corporate environment that we endure. Why are the most talented people always the ones who are most ready to walk away? There are very few architects I've met over the years who have not expressed at least a tinge of regret at the choices they have made.
And speaking of walking away, I was listening the this week's installment of the C-Realm podcast, which features an interview with Guy McPherson. Some of you may know him from his blog Nature Bats Last. McPherson was a tenured academic with about the best situation you can have here in collapsing America - a tenured professor with a six-figure salary, a stimulating environment surrounded by intellectual people, and a fairly stress-free working schedule (in fact, he said that in the end he was actually paid not to teach because of some of his more radical opinions).
But being that rarity in America, someone who cannot divorce his actions from his words, he walked away to live in a fairly primitive self-built homestead out in the desert. In the interview, he is very frank about wondering if he made the right choice to, as he put it, "walk away from empire," and listed the tolls it had taken on him over the years. You might expect him to say, "I regret nothing," simply to save face if nothing else, yet, once again unable to project appearances in place of reality, he honestly expresses ambiguous confusion and regret over what he has done. Here is someone who actually has done the most extreme thing imaginable, completely dropping out of society, and he lies awake at night wondering whether it was the right choice in the end.
In a world of so many wrong choices, who can be said to have made the right one?
In this world, who can be said to be truly happy?
Is the least worst option the best we can hope for?
And this week as I was getting coffee at the local coffee shop in the morning, the owner was having a conversation with another customer. It turned out that before she was a cafe owner, she was an electrical engineer. "I hated it, I absolutely hated it," she said. She liked being an electrician, but hated being an electrical engineer. She hated being in an office in front of the computer all day, a sentiment I can more than relate to. "I have a service personality," she said. When her kids were grown and off to high school, she quit and went into the coffee shop business (and at the right time it seems, she occupies some expensive real estate). I would imagine most people would think of having an engineering job as a major success (a 'STEM' field after all)! But she hated it. It's good that at least she had enough family support and enough money to start a new business. I know her daughter was laid off recently from a corporate job and was working at the shop (and I last saw her working at the local shop up the street from me). Things change.
I can recall my friend who works in IT and is rewarded substantial pay and luxurious benefits. Years ago, when he was climbing the ladder, he was focused on nothing more than the next promotion, the next pay raise. When I reconnected with him again recently, he was saving all his money so he could retire as early as possible. The corporate environment had taken its toll on him too. He was looking to retirement as his exit, so that he could spend his days doing what he loves, like working in a tropical fish store (he is a tropical fish aficionado), photography or travel. He is married with no children, and his wife has a good job (veterinarian), so he may yet achieve his goal (here is his podcast for the technically inclined)
And I wonder: Is there even a way not to be miserable in your job?
So, when I think of walking away I think on that interview. The host, too, walked away from a job he hated and couldn't stand. Perhaps he has more courage than I, or less tolerance for misery, and is still attempting to put together a financially stable life. But at least he's not alone. When you come from a working class background as I do, with each week's pay check being the only thing between you can homelessness, you see the world through a different lens. I was taught from early childhood that when you got a job, you held onto it for dear life, no matter what. My ancestors were peasants, and poverty is all my family has ever known. I have no family, no money, and so it is much more difficult to "walk away" And walk away to where? As I indicated above, it seems like everything is just as screwed up as everything else.
And that is finally where we came to, my boss and I, and my other coworkers around our desks this afternoon. It's well enough to talk of escape, but to where? My boss spoke of the windowless, cavernous warehouse of our contractor partner that he visited where welders work around the clock fashioning the shop frames to be installed in the field according the designs I myself drew. He recalled his jobs in food service during his younger days, including sorting corn for Del Monte (the poor quality cobs routed into the hopper where they are turned tin cans of creamed corn). "I'm glad I can at least put on normal clothes and work in an office." The least bad option, in the end, is what we are left with in this society. But it's natural to dream of something more.
And I wonder: what kind of world have we created where everyone is miserable?
And finally, I happened across an old bookmark for Charlie Stross' site. I actually had no idea who he was. He's an author, and you can read his biography here. It's always a difficult path to writing it seems, an a circuitous one. Living your own life and going your own way is hard work. I dream, during my days, of supporting myself as a writer, so I never have to come to work in an office again, to never have to deal with the politics, the feeling of inferiority, the feelings of "I just don't feel like dealing with this today." To create when I want to, and to work when I want to. But I guess I can join the club, and it's a big club.
And I imagine writing a fiction book that changes the world, and that dares to ask the question, "what if we all just walked away?" What if all of us just realized that is not what we want, that what we want is something better, and stopped putting our energies into a system that doesn't want us, as at least one commenter to my site suggested. Alone, we face nothing but ostracism and regret, but I believe the time is coming when we do walk away, when the alternative is so much worse that no sane person would choose it, and no amount of drugs will make us choose it. What happens when that day comes, when that critical mass is reached? Is such a thing even possible? Can we imagine it?
And I would like to explore that in fiction, a world not of Orwell or Huxley, not an all-powerful dystopia, but a withering away, a loss of faith, a dissatisfaction with life has on offer "going viral" as they say in the current parlance. A billion Twitter followers of a new savior telling us that it's not worth it, that it's OK to all walk away at the same time, to follow our hearts, to look to our health and find love. To wander through the woods and dig in the fields and feel alive; to feel what your ancestors felt, to think your own thoughts. And when such a day comes, the collapse brings not an apocalypse but the dawning of a new world, the world that, in the words of Charles Eisenstein, we know in our hearts is possible. What if helped each other to do this? It’s hard to face the end of the world alone.
And I wonder: can fiction matter? Can it point the way to reality?
And so I send this out to the universe with no resolution; just a conversation with myself that anyone can read. Why are we all prisoners in an invisible cage? Is there an open door that we just can't see? I struggle with these questions myself, and I wonder what kind of head it's coming to. There's something in the air this week, indeed, and I thought I would share it with all of you. Thanks for reading.