The Indicator: Either/Or

The Indicator: Either/Or

The numbers look good/bad. The economy is recovering/anemic. The markets are up/down. If you follow economic reporting and analysis the economy seems to be a schizo-economy. What this indicates, in this era of battling economic models, is that no one really knows from one day to the next.

When will this end? Nobody knows this either. Even the economists don’t know because we have never been in a recession rooted in such deep complexities and systemic vulnerabilities. In such an environment, the phantoms of group-think become a virus that exacerbates real conditions. Doubt shadows every possible move.

As the Buddha said, life is suffering. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard defined this as either/or. The central issues in his book, Either/Or, hinge upon the individual’s choice and will in the face of life’s difficulties. This is his take on how to end the suffering.

Danish architecture has exerted a powerful influence on the profession. Danish philosophy may also present some insight. Though he wrote in the eighteenth century he is sometimes considered a postmodernist. Now might be the appropriate time to include him in the Thinkers for Architects series. Although his philosophy may not, on the surface, seem relevant to design, it is definitely relevant to business…and to being human.

So how does choice or will factor into architecture’s current either/or economic condition of employed or unemployed? Fundamentally, you are screwed—at least when it comes to the larger factors way beyond your circle of influence: the all-powerful whims of markets, clients, and where the money comes from.

How you prepare for and ultimately handle this condition depends on your will. You might still be screwed, but at least you can arm yourself with knowledge and chart the best course of action.

So here is the existential condition. Unemployment in the U.S. continues to hover around 9.7% (in Los Angeles it is 12.4%). Though historically this is very high it doesn’t seem so bad, right? This means that the other 90% of the workforce is still out there being productive. Yes/no. According to Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman, the deeper information behind this number makes it a huge drag on the overall workings of the economy and on the psychology of the economy.

According to the Pew Research Center, roughly one quarter of all workers have at some point been unemployed during the current recession. Add that 9-10% unemployment figure to this and you get about a third of all working adults in the U.S. These are workers who have, in the words of Richard Morin, “dealt directly with what the worst of the recession has had to offer.”

Now consider this: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the profession of architecture there was a 46% increase in the number of unemployed from 2008 to 2009. Architecture lost the most jobs of any profession. During the same period the unemployment rate for architecture as a profession jumped from 3.1% to 6.9%. According to some statistics the profession is actually experiencing an unemployment rate close to 40%, but this can vary from city to city. How many empty seats are there in your firm?

On the bright side, the BLS has also divined a 10% increase in architecture jobs by 2018. Currently stuck in 2010, I can find absolutely nothing good to say about that.  Moreover, when I dug further into these numbers I learned that for Los Angeles the projections are actually in the negative.

The fact that one-third of the working population has been impacted by the recession in some significant ways has a chilling effect on the economy. But it is not just their feelings that are hurt. People who have re-entered the workforce now find themselves in more vulnerable positions then before the recession. Many are working part-time with no benefits. Some are working full-time but as “consultants” and with no benefits. Salaries are lower and expectations are higher. Then there is that large number of people who are not included in the statistics because they are just floaters, existing outside of the official labor force. These include people who have fallen out of the system, like the so-called “99-ers,” those who have run out of unemployment benefits after 99 weeks and still have not been able to find work.

The profession of architecture, dependent on the health of other economic sectors, extremely specialized, and by some measures exploitative to its workforce even in the best of times, is more seriously impacted under such conditions. It’s workers are also more vulnerable.

We get into this with the understanding that our profession offers intangible rewards that are more important than mere financial advancement. It’s a trade-off as you work your way up the steep triangle of power, influence, and responsibility. Architectural education also prepares us for this lofty sacrifice. Most of us know what we are getting ourselves into and gladly jump out of the plane anyway. After all, what we do can be pretty cool and sometimes we even get to design things. Such personal choices, however, are not justifications for labor issues that are symptoms of larger economic and cultural factors within the profession.

Chances are you know people who have been laid off or have had their salaries slashed. If you know people who have managed to find new positions in the profession, most likely they are doing more for less. They may also have been hired as “consultants” with no job security and no benefits. Such are the existential conditions we face today.

I have a friend who went to a prestigious boutique firm straight out of grad school. His base salary bumped him into the dwindling ranks of the middle class. Had he been living in Mississippi, life would have been very comfortable. In Los Angeles, let’s just say he had to measure his success more in terms of those intangible benefits. He worked his way up to a respectable mid-level position with a serious responsibility load. Still, his salary remained under that of a public school teacher and less per hour than most of the construction workers he met on jobsites.

He was able to keep his position through most of the recession but his pay was reduced three times. It got to the point, he said to me once, where he just stopped looking at his pay stubs.

He was making so little that living in Los Angeles just wasn’t viable anymore. He quit his job and moved back to his home state where the cost of living was cheaper and he had family. Though he wasn’t technically laid-off, he was, in a sense, forced out because his financial situation as a full-time architectural professional simply became untenable. He liked the people he worked with. He liked the firm. He didn’t want to quit. They didn’t want to see him go. The existential condition became too powerful to deny.

I have another friend who worked for a successful residential firm. She had her salary cut twice and her workload increased. She had to ask to be laid off. Her boss happily agreed and was in fact relieved because they would save a lot of money this way. The person they would bring in to replace her would be hired as a consultant at a much lower salary and with no benefits. He had no choice, he said. She was a project manager; close to being an associate; a valuable long-time employee who knew how to do everything.

She once told me how she has friends who either didn’t go to college or merely received undergraduate degrees in other fields who were earning nearly twice as much as she was. They couldn’t believe that someone as smart as she was, having a graduate degree in architecture from a prestigious university could be making so little while working so hard. At some point, she couldn’t believe it either, so she left.middl

These days, given the either/or conditions in the economy, it’s difficult to tell what the bigger reality is. In times like these it is more important than ever to know what your personal one is.

I will leave you with this quote from Eric Cesal’s new book, Down Detour Road: An Architect in Search of Practice:

Business school revealed to me that I had been quite wrong about some of what I thought I knew. None of what I learned in business school was at odds with what architecture school had taught me about architecture. But most of what architecture had taught me about business was, plainly, incorrect. It might seem arrogant to say that the whole profession of architecture may be nourishing misconceptions about finance and money, until one remembers that our whole society has been nourishing misconceptions about finance and money. If Alan Greenspan and Jim Cramer got so much wrong, it might be possible that the architects did too. (73)

If you have a story about how the economy has affected you, a colleague, or how a firm is dealing with it, The Indicator would like to hear from you:

About this author
Cite: Guy Horton. "The Indicator: Either/Or" 09 Sep 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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