Navigating the Middle

by Stefee Knudsen

Millennials and Boomers: It’s no big news that there are vast social and professional differences between these two generations (or any, for that matter), but my experience working in an architecture office as part of the generation in-between has given rise to some thought-provoking observations.

As a Gen-Xer, I find myself thinking about my generation’s place between these two, and finding that we have some interesting opportunities and challenges. We entered the profession looking up to the ideals of the Boomers, adopting their expectations for what the profession is, and how to succeed in it. Yet, as the Millennials enter the profession with entirely different expectations, I see that as Gen-Xers we often have adopted both – straddling the gap and bridging the differences. We are of neither generation, and yet of both.

Mentoring: With 15-25 years of experience in the profession, a Gen-Xer has a lot to offer emerging professionals coming into their careers in architecture. We’ve been around a few blocks and have learned some good lessons. We’ve benefited from our own mentors, and can now offer mentorship to the next generation – yet we are not at the end of the line either. We could still use advice on how to improve, navigate a changing profession, and achieve our own career goals. While most mentoring programs focus on matching the “emerging” group with “elders,” those of us in the middle have an opportunity to define the role we play.

Technology: The Millennials are digital natives, while many Boomers are digital aliens. Gen-Xers are, perhaps, digital immigrants. We came into the architecture profession during the transition from the age of hand drawing into the age of computers. As interns, with did both and were able to jump on the new technology bandwagon (AutoCAD). For the first time, we were not just the students, but also the teachers. And we quickly learned new programs that let us be versatile and productive, while our mentors struggled without those skills. Just a dozen years later, many of us can no longer keep up on everything new, nor does it make sense to get fully trained on systems that we won’t use enough to be proficient. Yet having little training has limits that are disconcerting and reminiscent of our observations of our own mentors. Those of us in the middle face an interesting challenge to balance the value of our hard-earned experience with the ability to participate in producing the work.

Practice: It’s changing quickly in a world facing profound challenges. Boomers and Millennials have widely differing approaches to the practice of architecture – the technology we use and priorities we set. A recent article in the AIA’s Architect magazine highlights how Millennials expect the workplace to be more collaborative, diverse, and engaged in social issues than the traditional workplace created by the Boomers. Those of us in the middle see the value in both, and strive to straddle the two: embracing the energy and passion of the next generation while valuing the wisdom and experience of those who have taught us so much.

Leveraging this in-between place offers those of us in the middle a unique opportunity and a challenge as we begin to take the reins from our mentors and become leaders ourselves.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, by furiousgeorge81

2 Comments »

  1. Great article. It’s spot on and speaks to my own personal experience as well.

  2. Anna Roberts says:

    Great article! You bring up some important point that aren’t always on management’s radar.

    It was actually the struggles of Gen X architects in navigating this ‘bridge’ that led me out of the AEC industry and into graduate studies on management and creativity. What you’ve said here matches up well with an independent study I did on the future leaders of creative industries. (http://www.wranglingcreatives.com/creative-capstone/)

    Another big challenge plays out in management styles. The culture of Gen X is different from the Boomers. We value different things. As a result we approach business and work (e.g. collaboration, work-life balance, hierarchy, workplace incentives) markedly different. Many of us work inside the structure that our predecessors built, but aren’t always sure how to navigate becoming managers in a way that’s true to our style.

    I recommend checking out Tammy Erickson’s work (http://tammyerickson.com). She’s done a lot of study on Gen X and wrote a book called “What’s Next, Gen X” that’s provides some great perspective. “X Saves the World” by Jeff Gordinier is an interesting read as well.

    Gen X is an important bridge to our changing world. We have a unique opportunity to connect the evolving technology and practice that you mentioned with important experience and unique perspectives. You’re clearly taking an active and thoughtful role in that evolution!

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