Are Architects Depressed, Unhealthy and Divorced?

It's A Wonderful Life / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

How often do you hear phrases with the following general undertones: “architecture isn’t a profession it is a calling,” “architecture isn’t a career it is a way of life,” or “architecture doesn’t make life possible it makes it worth living”? Perhaps not that often, but enough that many architects see themselves as uniquely sacrificing aspects of their life for a higher cause. Some claim that architects have high divorce rates, suffer from depression, and endure a special degree of stress that causes early mortality from cancer and heart disease. Yikes! But what evidence is there for these serious claims? Admittedly, the evidence for or against such claims is not very robust. The first and best answer, except in the case of divorce, is to say, “I don’t know.” Sorting out the muddled statistics takes a fair degree of interpretation and guesswork. However, after reviewing the data that are available, it is more reasonable to believe that architects are, on average, happily married and healthy people.

The first three biographical films about architects I ever watched examined the lives of Wright, Kahn and Gehry. Two were notorious philanderers, and all three abandoned at least one family. These celebrated architects don’t paint a pretty picture for the profession, but they are also not accurate depictions of it. A study, published in 2010, examining U.S. Census data found that architects were among the least likely to get divorced. With a 10.95% divorce rate, architects ranked 405th out of the 449 occupations reviewed in the studied. This is even below the expected rate after the regression analysis that controlled for age, sex, race, and income.

Tom Smykowski: It was a "Jump to Conclusions" mat. You see, it would be this mat that you would put on the floor... and would have different CONCLUSIONS written on it that you could JUMP TO. Michael Bolton: That's the worst idea I've ever heard in my life, Tom.

There are, however, two notable limitations of this study. First, “the data provide a snapshot of the percentage of people that were currently divorced or separated at the time they completed the 2000 census.” Thus the data are unable to capture the average divorce rate per person in each occupation; i.e. someone could get divorced three times, but would only be counted as one divorce. Perhaps architects get divorced more often than people in other occupations. The study’s authors cannot comment on whether that is true, but they do say, “the possibility that such data would yield results different from what we found is purely speculative and without any empirical support.” Essentially, it equally could be true of all other occupations.

Secondly, the study does not comment on the percentage of architects who cohabitate, but never choose to marry. Perhaps architects cohabitate and separate at high rates. That doesn’t seem to be the case either. A research report published by the National Endowment for the Arts found architects, including landscape architects, among the least likely in the artist category to live in non-family arrangements i.e. non-married partners. At 6.4% architects were also less likely than the general labor force (8.2%) and professional occupations (6.6%) to live in non-family arrangements. So, it seems architects do get married and they stay married. Whether they are happily married is a little less clear.

The data surrounding depression and architects is terribly inconclusive. For instance, one could cite The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) report. When compared to all other occupations the NSDUH report found architects and engineers to be the least likely to suffer from depression (4.3%). The problem with this report is that architects were lumped into a category with engineers and surveyors. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) architects make up only 5.89% of the Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services industry. With such a small percentage, architects could be severely depressed and the survey might never catch it. For example, architects’ divorce rate looks substantially higher if you lump architects into the NEA’s Artist category. This is due to other artists having among the highest rates of divorce. Perhaps something similar is happening with architects’ depression rate, but the categorization is driving it down not up. Still, just because there is a possibility that architects might have a higher rate of depression than the average does not mean we should readily conclude they are depressed. In fact, that appears to be the more irrational thing to conclude from the data that is available.

Perhaps architects do have a depression rate higher than 4.3%. It is hard to dismiss that interpretation. The NSDUH 2007 report has a category titled Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media (ADESM). Perhaps architects’ personalities and work habits more closely resemble those in this category than those in the Engineering, Architecture, and Surveyors category. At 9.1%, the depression rate of the ADESM category is higher than the 8.6% average. So, maybe a good guess would be between 4.3% and 9.1%? Not necessarily. If anything, one should pick a rate on the lower end of these two rates.

The ADESM category includes the arts, which includes occupations such as dancers and choreographers. These occupations have the highest rates of divorce (43.05%), more than 4 times higher than architects. Additionally, 80% of architects are male which on average have lower rates of depression. The highest rate of depression among men is 6.7% in the ADESM category. This is still below the national average. (Note, I do not think having a male dominated profession is a good thing. Thankfully this trend is changing. Here, I am merely trying to explain why we cannot readily assume the statistics of architects match up with categories like the NEA’s Artist category.) Finally, architects have more statistical similarities with the professions lumped into the BLS’s Architecture, Engineering, and Related Services category than they have with occupations under the NEA’s Artist category. These include income, employment, and education. This does not mean depression would hold to this pattern, but what is more likely? Of course, it is highly speculative to assume architects have lower rates of depression than the average, but it is not as speculative as saying they are higher.

So what about health? Do architects die earlier than people in other occupations? That is an exceptionally serious claim. Again, this needs to be looked at broadly. Professor Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist, primatologist, and a leading expert in stress related diseases, writes, “we can’t consider disease outside the context of the person who is ill, we also can’t consider it outside the context of the society in which that person has gotten ill, and that person’s place in that society.” Sapolsky bluntly says, “If you want to increase the odds of living a long and healthy life, don’t be poor.” Even more damning, he points to research that shows you don’t even want to be born poor and then acquire wealth. Avoid being poor altogether period (obviously this is out of your control). Simply, socioeconomic status (SES) is the biggest factor there is in all of behavioral medicine. “If you have a bunch of people of the same gender, age, and ethnicity and you want to make some predictions about who is going to live how long, the single most useful fact to know is each person’s SES.” So, the question is, what is the socioeconomic status of architects?

First, architects are the most highly educated of the artists. 89.5% of all architects hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Compare that to producers and directors with 69.3%, the second highest, and the national average for the general labor force with 27.9%. Thus architects have on average three times the educational level of the general labor force. This suggests that architects do not tend to come from poverty. Children with a low socioeconomic status are twice as likely to drop out of high school as those from a middle socioeconomic status.

Secondly, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median income for architects is $72,550; putting them in the top 32%. The NEA reports a median income of $58,000, but that includes landscape architects who have a lower median income. Either way architects are socioeconomically better off than 60-70% of the general labor force. And, here is the important part, “the /health relationship forms an asymptote—going from the very poor to the lower middle class involves a steep rise in health that then tends to flatten out as you go into the upper SES range,” and this is most pronounced in countries with high levels of income inequality like the United States. With that in mind, architects are possibly at less of a risk for cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, ulcers, rheumatoid disorders, psychiatric diseases, and a number types of cancers than 60-70% of the general labor force.

So what if we control for socioeconomic status? To me, this is moving the goal posts, and highly insensitive to the 60-70% of the labor force who’s health would greatly benefit from the socioeconomic status that comes with being an architect. Even if being an architect is uniquely stressful, architects appear well equipped to deal with it. One of the most dependable elements in lowering glucocorticoid levels, stress hormones, is social support i.e. a spouse. People with spouses have longer life expectancies, and architects appear to get married and stay married.

Lastly, one might wonder how the current economic climate affects these statistics. This is difficult to know, complicated, and somewhat counterintuitive. For example, some studies find that the financial strain from economic downturns drive down divorce rates, while other studies find that they drive them up. Specific to architects’ high educational levels, one study found that those with a college education were half as likely to get divorced during an economic downturn as those who didn’t have a college education.

Regarding the architecture unemployment rate, the statistics are wildly unreliable. Claims of 40% to 50% are absurd, but the rate appears higher than the national average. This, however, is generally not the long-term trend. Even in recessions, architecture’s unemployment rate tends to be the lowest among all the occupations in the NEA’s Artist category. Furthermore, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics predicts architecture to be one of the largest future growth markets, and unemployment rates usually track those of the allied engineering fields, which normally stay below the national average. Additionally, high rates of education can help architects weather recessions better than those in occupations with lower levels of education. So, although the current economic situation is exceedingly painful, the architecture profession needs to be seen in the long view if we are going to make any predications about the profession’s affects on divorce, happiness, health, and life span.

To restate the original question, do you have to sacrifice your marriage, health, and mental well-being to be an architect? Again, the best answer is to say is “I don’t know,” but if you had to guess it should be no. By spreading unlikely and unsubstantiated claims, architects are only hurting themselves. The socioeconomic status/health relation is not only about being poor it is about feeling poor. In some circumstances and within a reasonable range, a person’s perception about their socioeconomic status can be a better predictor of their health than their actual socioeconomic status. Architects can love architecture without being masochists. They don’t have to suffer for their work to be as important as other occupations. It is okay to be an architect without a lot of showy angst. Architecture isn’t any less valuable because it fails to impinge upon architects’ health and enjoyment of life. That is the message architects should be spreading; not only because it is positive and healthy, but also because it seems to be true.

If you enjoyed this article check out more by Christopher N. Henry here.

Frank Lloyd Wright, My Architect: A Son’s Journey, and Sketches of Frank Gehry

McCoy, Shawn P. and Michael G. Aamodt. “A Comparison of Law Enforcement Divorce Rates with Those of Other Occupations,” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology. Vol 25, 2010, p. 1-16.

McCoy, Shawn P. and Michael G. Aamodt. “A Comparison of Law Enforcement Divorce Rates with Those of Other Occupations,” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology. Vol 25, 2010, p. 1-16.

National Endowment for the Arts, Artists in the Workforce 1990-2005. May 2008. This research used the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census data and the 2003-2005 American Community Survey.

It would seem obvious to conclude that low divorce rates mean the marriages of architects are less stressful and challenging. That is not always the case. For example, take the divorce rates among families with autism in them. A large epidemiological study published in 2011 by Johns Hopkins’s Kennedy Krieger Institute found that an ASD diagnosis, when controlling for accompanying diagnoses, actually decreased the rate of divorce. This is completely counterintuitive because there is a mountain of evidence that suggests families with ASD individuals experience uniquely stressful relationships. See: Freedman, Brian H., Luther G. Kalb, Benjamin Zablotsky and Elizabeth A. Stuart. “Relationship Status Among Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Population-Based Study.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies. (October 11, 2007). The NSDUH Report: Depression among Adults Employed Full-Time, by Occupational Category. Rockville, MD.

“Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010. Architects, Except Landscape and Naval,” United States Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The 2007 NSDUH report surveyed only 15,531 people. This might seem like a lot, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) surveys 60,000 households within all occupations, and of that they only capture 1,300 households in the Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services industry. What’s more, only about 100 architects are represented in that survey. If the ratios held the same between the NSDUH’s and BLS’s statistics than we would be making conclusions about depression based on 26 architects. See: Hughes, C. J. “Exactly How Many Architects in the U.S. Are Unemployed?” Architecture Record, October 25, 2010.

Likewise, I have seen people cite the Happiness Index produced by City and Guilds. In 2006 it found that architects were among the unhappiest with their jobs, at The problem is that most new sources present these rankings but fail to comment on the numbers behind the statistics. Here is what the City and Guilds writes for its 2006 methodology, “The research was undertaken by The Survey Shop in March 2006 and is based on a sample of 1,301 employees – in 610 academic professions and 691 in vocational occupations throughout the UK.” How many architects were surveyed, one, two? Why is it not clearly listed in the methodology how many people were surveyed from each occupation? That is probably why from year to year you see some professions ranking high and then the next year low i.e. florist went 17th in 2005 to 3rd in 2006, or architects who went from 29th one year to a four way tie for 9th in another. What’s more some professions are presented in the survey one year and gone the next. This is exactly what one would expect from such a small survey of multiple occupations with different base rates.

Additionally, if you cite this source you must at the very least cite University of Chicago’s “Job Satisfaction in the United States” report that found 53.5% of architects reporting they are very happy, not simply happy. That puts architects at 4th in the General Happiness category. They do not rank in the top 12 in the Job Satisfaction category, but they are not in the bottom 12 either. You wouldn’t predict that from the City and Guilds’ results. Again the important thing is the numbers behind the statistics.

Here is the methodology; I will let you decide the creditability. “The GSS are conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. James A. Davis, Tom W. Smith, and Peter V. Marsden are the principal investigators. The GSS are full-probability samples of adults living in households in the United States. Interviews are conducted in-person. Not including the oversamples in 1982 and 1987, sample size across 1972-2006 totals 50,313 respondents (1972=1613, 1973=1504, 1974=1484, 1975=1490, 1976=1499, 1977=1530, 1978=1532, 1980=1468, 1982=1506, 1983=1599, 1984=1473, 1985=1534, 1986=1470, 1987=1466, 1988=1481, 1989=1537, 1990=1372, 1991=1517, 1993=1606, 1994=2992, 1996=2904,1998=2832, 2000=2817; 2002=2765; 2004=2812; 2006=4510). Full technical details on the sample, response rates, and other methodological matters are presented in James A. Davis, Tom W. Smith, and Peter V. Marsden, General Social Surveys, 1972-2006: Cumulative Codebook. Chicago: NORC, 2007.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies. (October 11, 2007). The NSDUH Report: Depression among Adults Employed Full-Time, by Occupational Category. Rockville, MD.

Sapolsky, Robert. Why Zebras don’t get ulcers. Holt Paperbacks; 3rd edition, 2004. Easily the best book I have read this year. I would suggest start here for information on the socioeconomic status/health relationship; not only because it is informative, but also because it is highly entertaining.

National Endowment for the Arts, Artists in the Workforce 1990-2005. May 2008. This research used the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Census data and the 2003-2005 American Community Survey.

To understand the base rate of socioeconomic status in college these two websites are helpful

Christle, Christine A. Kristine Jolivette, and C. Michael Nelson. “School Characteristics Related to High School Dropout Rates,” Remedial and Special Education. Vol. 28, no. 6, 2007, p. 325-339.

Amato, Paul R. and Brett Beattie, “Does the unemployment rate affect the divorce rate? An analysis of state data 1960-2005.” Social Science Research Vol. 40, no. 3, 2001, p. 705-715.

“The Great Recession and Marriage,” National Marriage Project’s Survey of Marital Generosity, The National Marriage Project. University of Virginia, 2011.

Hughes, C. J. “Exactly How Many Architects in the U.S. Are Unemployed?” Architecture Record, October 25, 2010. (I believe most of the wildly exaggerated estimates reflect a pattern of the profession’s tendency to exaggerate the hardships architects face, i.e. divorce rates, health, depression.)

About this author
Cite: Christopher N. Henry. "Are Architects Depressed, Unhealthy and Divorced?" 14 Dec 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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