Should I work for the ultra-wealthy?
June 16, 2014 7:44 PM   Subscribe

I have a job offer to work for an ultra-high-end residential design company. I am proudly middle class, (sort of on the Robert Reich "inequality for all" side of things) and I am having uncomfortable, knee-jerk reactions to the work this firm does - very non-green homes for the 1%. However, it's a well-paying job, and after three years in a job being underemployed at 30% less pay, and getting close to being broke, I could really use the money. How do I get my head in the right place to take this job?

I feel a bit silly asking this, 'cause having a good job offer like this for an architect in this economy is roses (and I ought to be grateful for getting a job offer at all, really), but tell that to my unrelenting, will-not-shut-up, idealistic self. (Btw, I did not apply for this job, it came to me unsolicited.) The firm does almost exclusively traditional looking (not my favorite aesthetic, but I can deal), spare-no-expense, 8000sf and up, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th homes for the 1%. It's nice work if you can get it, and if I don't do it, someone will - not like my turning down the job will stop these 1%. But it's not the direction I really want to end up in (would prefer working in sustainability and green building, but haven't yet built the cred and connections to get a job in that area.) I am not a young pup anymore (nearer to 4-0 than not), and I'm a little concerned about taking a job, even for a year or two, that falls outside my actual interests and most of my values.

The redeeming qualities I can see right now about the job is that it is in a slightly better location for me (city versus rural suburb), and it is a chance to learn about the best finishes/materials that money can buy - potentially useful information no matter where my career heads. Also, the firm has high standards of excellence, which always appeals to me (they have to do excellent work to retain these clients). I like learning about materials, and I like doing excellent work. I know I'll learn something no matter what, but that doesn't assuage this nagging sense of getting in bed with the enemy, losing my soul, going over to the dark side.

Perhaps the question is how do I keep my idealism intact, how do I self-justify this, how do I soothe my idealistic self into not sabotaging the rest of me?
posted by ihavequestions to Work & Money (65 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
At the end of the day your idealistic self wants to make a difference, and ideal or not, making money is a shortcut to power/change/being able to make a difference.

I would approach it not as selling out your values, but as slipping into enemy territory undetected. I don't know anything about this industry but rough examples: Use this opportunity to make connections for green/sustainable buildings. Steal any secrets they've discovered making buildings for the ultra-rich and apply them to your next sustainable project. Use a fraction of your new income to start building your own project that fulfills you on a deeper level.

I'm like you: my job defines me. It's part of my personality, and how I see myself. But in this case, you are going undercover. You are there to get their knowledge, their connections, and frankly their money. But you're not playing for their team.

This is coming from someone many years your junior, figuring all this shit out for myself, but this is the mental pep talk I'm giving myself, and I hope it might help.
posted by ejfox at 7:51 PM on June 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

How do I get my head in the right place to take this job?

A job taking from the rich and giving to yourself - and they voluntarily give it to you? Now, if you were doing this for them for free, or doing something that just makes them richer, or increases the disparity, then I could see having some well-deserved internal conflict. But what you're talking about is helping them find a way to redistribute their wealth voluntarily by wasting in on conspicuous consumption. They want to part with their money in exchange for some expensive material stuff? Help them, man.
posted by The World Famous at 7:51 PM on June 16, 2014 [17 favorites]

How much would working for this company set you up to get the idealistic green-centered job that you really want in a few years? In other words, could this be a stepping-stone to your dream job, or is this a diversion in the wrong direction?
posted by ClaireBear at 7:52 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've experienced similar feelings and when a character on Mad Men uttered the following line this season, it really struck a chord with me: "Just cash the checks. You're gonna die one day."
posted by lovableiago at 7:53 PM on June 16, 2014 [27 favorites]

There is nothing inherently unethical about the work even if there is nothing that really contributes to the greater good. It sounds like a stepping stone to something else that would be more positive and that you would pick up valuable skills in the process.

The only real danger I see is the golden handcuffs. Stay for 2-3 years and them get out and don't look back.
posted by whoaali at 7:53 PM on June 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

The tone of your question sounds like you think all "1%ers" are morally bankrupt asshole evildoers. That is absolutely not true. Take the job and think a little about whether it's fair to stereotype.
posted by cecic at 7:53 PM on June 16, 2014 [19 favorites]

Someone's going to get that paycheck, whether or not it's you is up to you. You can either take their money or not.
posted by colin_l at 7:54 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Maybe you can use it to get the credibility to convince the 1% to let you build greener buildings.

Or someday go start a socially-minded firm that builds better housing for the middle class and get all your old clients to invest in you.
posted by amaire at 7:56 PM on June 16, 2014 [21 favorites]

My dad does the engineering on these kinds of houses. It hurts him a little bit to be making sure that someone's fifth or sixth 5,000+ square foot home will stand up, but it pays the bills. It is also really the only place that interesting design work is happening- at the very highest end, which has been the case forever.
posted by rockindata at 7:58 PM on June 16, 2014 [20 favorites]

You might be surprised about how much you will learn about sustainability and green building in this role. Generally the very wealthy are earlier adopters of new technology and sustainability / green building is on trend right now. You could find yourself at the cutting edge of design and tech in this space - and it would give you the experience you need to work on more socially valuable projects in the future. It sounds like a great opportunity, quite frankly.

Also, you're not a sellout for wanting to earn money. You have plenty of time to give back outside work hours and in the future. It' s not like you are selling shonky mortgages to people who can't afford them - and you might even find that the 1% are just normal people with a bit more money. (Idealism is nice but it doesn't pay for your retirement or college for your kids.)
posted by yogalemon at 8:00 PM on June 16, 2014 [42 favorites]

A relative of mine worked for a while in green design and construction and most of the buildings he worked on were for pretty wealthy people. All those low-VOC materials and green roofs are not cheap, yo. Sure, some of your work will probably be for people who want Versailles, only fancier, but some of it will probably be for people who are willing to put some money where their ethics are.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:01 PM on June 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

First of all, the 1% is a few orders of magnitude off from a fourth 8000 sq ft home, so I think you're painting with an excessively broad brush here.

Second, if you're looking for rationalizations, could you promise you'll give a fixed fraction of your income to charity, and then tell yourself that by accepting this job you'll be increasing your donation? This is called earning to give in some circles.

Third, is there any opportunity in architecture for pro bono work on the side? It's a fairly common strategy in, e.g., law, to donate labor to the local charities.
posted by d. z. wang at 8:02 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would take the job, if it did not shut doors to being able to work on green-er projects. I am aware of upper earners (maybe not the 1%, but still) who are also interested in greener technology so I feel fairly confident this job would not be a dead end, but if you do not know the answer perhaps there is some one in the industry you trust to consult. I think the most important course of action is to shore up your own finances due to being 30% underemployed, but still think lean. Seriously of putting aside anything extra this job would allow. Take this time to thoughtfully consider your budget, your lifestyle - where do you want to be in five years, are there changes you need to make so that you can take a different job down the line. It might also be good to visualize what it would be like if circumstances changed and you needed to stay in the "1%" job, how does that make you feel?
posted by dawg-proud at 8:03 PM on June 16, 2014

Take the job, get the education, take their money. Think about it: they are paying (well) for you to learn. The fact that nowadays jobs catering to the 1% (whether as a builder, high-end restaurateur, expensive lawyer, etc.) are often the only lucrative jobs left is evidence of the chasm between this class and everyone else. Look, I get it. The 1% may not be evil, but the mid-to-upper echelons sure can be tacky. I spend much of my time among this group, and I find that a gently ironic, compassionate stance toward that population is healthiest. Instead of letting it get you down, find the humor in it, and allow it to fuel your green dreams.

The 1%, increasingly, is the only place there is still significant money in this country. This trend, at least according to this book, is unlikely to change in the near future.

Get on that train and don't look back.
posted by Atrahasis at 8:03 PM on June 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Perhaps you should take the job, and then give some portion of your extra income to the most effective charities.
posted by HoraceH at 8:04 PM on June 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Take the job. Get good at it, and then propose a green initiative. It's not like the ultra-wealthy don't want green homes.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:04 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are people somewhere right now starving and I guarantee you have thrown away half eaten meals at some point. There are other people with no access to water but yet I'm guessing there have been those nights where you took an unnecessarily long shower or let the water run while you brush your teeth. My point being that it is great to live by your ideals and to try to contribute to the world you want to exist but there is a point at which you are beating yourself up over nothing.

Your work does not define your life and contributions to this world. At the worst this job sounds like a net neutral. If you started working in the oil fields destroying the aquifers or got a job for Halliburton as a mercenary I would understand your concerns but this job is nowhere near any of that. Rich people exist, they aren't all bad, in fact many of them keep charities that do great things afloat. As others have said with the money you make or your free time you can do great things.

Don't worry yourself over this, take the job, support yourself, your family, and generate the financial means to make the change you want to see in the world.
posted by mrdrummed at 8:07 PM on June 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

When I have experienced these types of issues before... I always wonder to myself how far down the rabbit hole can I go before its OK? I remember I was looking for job ages ago and I was close to a job offer with Company X and a friend of mine said "oh back in the 70's they did %HORRIBLETHING% that killed some babies! You really will work with them?" ... turns out I didn't have to worry about that moral quandary as I got a job offer from a legal firm... who it turns out had represented some clearly-guilty-of-horrendous-crimes types and got them off. I also got a job offer from an insurance firm who...

You get the idea. Maybe you could work for an upstanding architecture firm, design a 80 story green tower with all the bleeding edge stuff you can dream about, and the occupants are morally bankrupt firms. How much are you a part of what they do?

I would change this to look at it as a career step. What do they offer (asides from cash) that will further your career in the direction you want it to go?
posted by Admira at 8:09 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds interesting! Almost every interesting architectural work was done for a rich person -- even Frank Lloyd Wright's "cheap" houses were going to the 1% of that time. Poor people can't afford to take risks on doing something new or different.

Also, laughing at rich people is fun. A lot of them are secretly bankrupt, have screwed up family relationships, or have addictions that would simply be impossible on a lower budget.
posted by miyabo at 8:15 PM on June 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

I might be the lone voice of hesitation, but I also have dozens of friends in your exact position, and it's something I'm seriously considering and grappling with, as a very young architect myself.

But the question I have is - assuming that you're spectacularly successful at this new position, would it open the kind of doors you would want?

If you make contact with some clients, learn some more aspects about the industry, understand more the kind of materials/finishes/fixtures/specs that are used at that budget level -- would it be the kind of clients you want? Would you obtain the connections to the green/sustainable aspect of the industry through this new position? Does the firm attract those kind of clients and/or connections that you want?

If a client took you aside and said, "We really like you; we want you to build another very non-green home for the 1% on your own," would that satisfy you?

Or: Would this firm provide as a stepping stone for you towards working at other firms that are actually oriented towards sustainability, etc? What kind of credibility/reputation does it have within the industry?


I don't think a job is ever "just a paycheck", especially with something like architecture, in which so much of one's personal judgment, brainpower, and psyche goes into a project. Perhaps I'm still green, but I can't believe that everyone in this thread manages somehow to detach one's own job with the ethics of what that job does, and who it benefits, and who it does not.

It seems that as a whole, the firm may not orient itself towards being open to what your long-term interests are, and as a result, the clients it attracts (and the projects it produces, and thus the clients it attracts..) are not aligned with your long-term interests.

If I took the position, I would only do so if I needed the money, AND if it operated as a stepping stone towards another kind of position, AND if I swore to myself that I would look for another job in alignment with my values after a given period of time.
posted by suedehead at 8:22 PM on June 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Everybody has at some time or another worked for a boss they don't really respect.

So they have money. So what? Does that make them 100% evil? The hierarchy exists and they just happen to be on top this time around. Try not to see it so black & white. At least they are creating jobs as opposed to, oh, subjugating an entire country's worth of people.

This doesn't sound like a moral issue to be honest, it is more like the "not ideal job" blues that people get, but as you've said you're not in the place to turn this down.

Try to just think of them as people. Some will be nice. Some will be assholes. Any one of them might have connections you can use later to further your career and maybe you can introduce them to more green ways of building things.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:24 PM on June 16, 2014

You can laugh at me if you want, but I've cried over this issue. Money is always a way more complicated and highly emotionally charged issue than I first think..... I guess I want all that 1% wealth to magically go to where it is needed - schools, kids who don't have enough to eat right now in the US, net zero and better buildings. In reading your wonderful and much appreciated responses, I'm recognizing that the idealism I'm battling in myself is a kind of child-like thing - wants magic and fairytale endings, without recognizing the nitty-gritty, dirty work. That's not the person I want to be.

So I think as Admira suggests, reframing the question: taking the money, doing the work, making my life better by not having to constantly worry over money, and using that freedom to constantly ask myself how to make the world better in whatever ways I can. And have a better, more far-sighted plan to do that...Growing up, being an adult.
posted by ihavequestions at 8:27 PM on June 16, 2014 [20 favorites]

If you take the job, don't take on a lifestyle that demands the high salary. I.e., be wary of having kids, getting an expensive hobby, etc. Make sure you can leave the moment you decide it's soul-crushing or that you find a way to parlay your experience into something more meaningful to you.
posted by amtho at 8:27 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Almost everyone works because they need the money, and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

I've worked for some pretty horrible rich people and I've tried to tell myself I was "taking down the man from the inside" or whatever, but at the end of the day all that is kind of nonsense. I had to admit myself I was associating myself with, and working for the benefit of, evil people.

I'm not saying don't take the job. But if you're doing it for the money, tell yourself "I'm doing it for the money." All the other rationalizations are ultimately pretty facile and dishonest, in my opinion.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:28 PM on June 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

would prefer working in sustainability and green building, but haven't yet built the cred and connections to get a job in that area.)

A lot of rich people really care about this too, and have money to pursue it.

I'm not gonna tell you take it or not -and you should ignore others telling you. This is your decision, and your conscience. It sounds like you're really looking for permission to take it and ease your guilty conscience.

Everyone has their own thresholds for this stuff. Mine is the carbon industry, and tobacco. Use the money and do something good with it.
posted by smoke at 8:30 PM on June 16, 2014

would prefer working in sustainability and green building

I suspect you are seriously overestimating the amount of good (environmental good, anyway) you would do in such a job.

You would design a few homes that use a bit less energy. It would be a drop in the bucket compared to the massive pollution generated by the average North American.

If you're really concerned about the environment, lobby for regulatory change and support organisations that do the same. You can do that no matter what your day job is.
posted by ripley_ at 8:36 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Redistribute their wealth, and save some of it for the day you want to start your own firm/go in with someone to do the work that matters.

The hardest part will be if you get too comfortable with spending all you earn, get in debt, and get trapped. Then you will be their monkey because you can't afford anything else.
posted by emjaybee at 8:43 PM on June 16, 2014

tl;dr, but the 1% will always find ways to outdo/outbuild/outspend each other. From the outside of this firm you can have no influence on design or materials. On the inside - there you are with your ideals to subtly spread among your peers. Take the money and use it wisely. With the reputation and contacts that you acquire, perhaps you will someday start you own firm using green concepts.
posted by Cranberry at 8:51 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take the job and commit to a certain number of hours as well as money with a sustainability non-profit that will give you contacts. A well off architect with wealthy clients is a win for those non-profits in the sustainability field, because you can help bridge ideas coming over from their side, and you'd be able to make more contacts with them to eventually moving into a field that fits you better.

Set your own ethical boundaries and save money so you can quit if you're asked to cross them. Like - you wouldn't drain protected marshland to build a bigger garage. You wouldn't use smuggled teak for the flooring.

I also think you're under-estimating the social cachet a lot of the 1%, especially younger ones, get from being environmental. It's kinda like couture clothes - handmade, expensive and artesian so they get a one-up socially for having a completely solar-powered house made with ethically reclaimed driftwood and antique refurbished fixtures blah blah. You're going to be in a position to direct a lot of money to sustainable and green businesses.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:55 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't take the job...yet. You clearly do not know enough about what it entails. I think you should sit down with the person offering the job and find out exactly what they are designing. What materials are they using? How green are they?

At one point in my life I lived in what is considered a wealthy suburb of a large city. When I did work on my house, I used reclaimed wood for my kitchen cabinets, I added some geothermal heating/cooling and I spend a lot of money on the most energy efficient windows money could buy. Turns out, I also give money to charity, mostly inner city educational ones. I also am conservative politically. I am not in the category of having 3rd and 4th homes, but I might be considered wealthy by your definition.

Instead of making assumptions about the firm, about the work they are doing and about their wealthy clients, do some research and then make an informed decision on whether to take the job.
posted by 724A at 9:00 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Echoing viggorlijah. With a well-paying job, you have the freedom to pursue your social justice passions as your avocation. You can teach the skills you're learning to young children or community college students. You an use the nice, fat paycheck to take someone interested in the field to a green building conference. You can work at a local shelter. In this case, money is freedom. I struggle with the same things and I've recently learned that earning a living is not a sin ... because I'm earning it.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 9:03 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

The 1% you'd be working for are often active philanthropists. Who knows but that you may meet someone to finance your future in green building for lower income folks as a way of giving back?
posted by summerstorm at 9:12 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Someone's going to get that paycheck, whether or not it's you is up to you.

Yes, and in light of that important point, think about this: who would be better at donating a small percentage of that paycheck — you, or some random other person? Think of the organization you'd donate it to (perhaps a controversial organization with a mission you believe in, or perhaps an organization that everyone would agree is doing good but that is simply underfunded). And think of the stranger who would take your place if you don't take the job, who might donate it to an organization that would make the world worse, in your opinion.

I admire your concern for the environment. But no one who's a human being in the modern world can say they've gone through life without at times acting in a way that's harming the environment. That's true of you, me, everyone reading this. (We're all exploiting resources with these computers...) Recognizing your discomfort with what you're doing today, but also realizing that you may have made a good choice to get yourself to where you should be — that's not becoming a totally amoral cog in the machine. That's being a thinking person who's aware that life more often comes in shades of grey than black-and-white. That's part of being a rational and moral adult.

One thought I like to remind myself of, which applies to a lot of different situations, is: "I didn't create all this." You didn't choose for the United States to be structured the way it is. You (like all of us) were just thrown into it and forced to get by. It would not be realistic to settle for nothing less than single-handedly turning the US into a radically different country. That's not going to happen anytime soon, and you need to break down your tasks into manageable portions.

Never apologize for caring about your morals and ideals. But also, never apologize for making the most rational decision in your circumstances, in a world that's far from ideal.
posted by John Cohen at 9:20 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've worked for a firm very much like this. You know Mitt Romney's elevator car house? My firm worked on that, and the place next door, that used to owned by Cliff Robertson. The car elevator did not come as a surprise to me - it happens all the time in that area.

First off - people commenting in this thread should not assume that you'll necessarily be making a lot more money with this firm than you would somewhere else. I made more money working on strip malls than I did doing ultra-high end houses. I made plenty enough to live on, but not megabucks.

Second, I think you've overly romanticized the Promethean aspect of architecture. There's a billion workaday buildings out there, and they have to be designed by somebody. No one gets to do works for the greater public good all the time. If you're not doing rich people's houses, you'll be doing some kind of building for the corporations where they're major shareholders, or building cultural institutions funded by their donations. It's not something that would really worry me.

Third, I'd worry much more about what your role will be in this firm rather than the kinds of buildings you're working on or who your clients are. Will working here give you experience that you wouldn't be able to get as easily elsewhere? Will you be intimately involved in the permitting process, either for discretionary or building permits? Will you be the primary point of contact for consultants? What will your role be during construction administration? Will you get to design stuff? If all this is minimal at first, will the position give you the opportunity to grow into those roles? Does the firm have a history of letting their employees do that? Those are the kinds of things that will actually further your career, not so much doing CAD monkey stuff on a notable building.

So, I worked for a firm where we did ridiculous houses. Clients included Tony Robbins, Ted Waite (founder of Gateway computers), the owner of a chain of stores in Mexico, the one-time-not-W owner of the Texas Rangers, and one of the founders of Qualcomm. The houses I worked on were generally over 10,000 square feet; the largest one I did was 21,000. Most of our clients wanted traditional work, but I did luck out and get a couple modern projects. However, the traditional work we did do was generally pretty good - not too exciting to work on, but our finished product ended up looking decent and "correct". A lot of traditional stuff gets done really poorly, so it was nice to work for a place that really tried to get it right. This was my second job out of school, and I took it mostly to get out of the horrible environment where I was working previously. I got a lot of benefit from the job - almost all those questions I asked above would have been answered in the affirmative there, other than the design one (and I still contributed, I just didn't get to do the big stuff at the beginning of a project), and that was all very valuable experience for me to get, especially so at age 25. By the end of my time there I was handling just about everything other than project budgeting - I ran the permits, I did all the drawings, I met with the consultants and reviewed and coordinated their work, I reviewed all the construction shop drawings, and I led the jobsite construction meetings. There are not many firms where I could get all that experience less than 10 years out of school. Ultimately, I left because the only place I had to go there was a promotion to "project manager", which would barely increase my responsibilities, so I left to get into commercial work.

I should note that most of our clients were pretty decent people, just not very adventurous in their desire for a living environment. They're not sitting around twiddling their mustaches and looking for damsels to tie to railroads, and building a house for them wouldn't really help them do that anyway.
posted by LionIndex at 9:23 PM on June 16, 2014 [13 favorites]

You would design a few homes that use a bit less energy. It would be a drop in the bucket compared to the massive pollution generated by the average North American.

40% of total energy consumption in the US is generated by buildings. So no, designing sustainable buildings are not a "drop in the bucket"; this is exactly how change happens, by those in the industry trying to design buildings that use less energy.


Sorry to post again, but I suspect that I feel very strongly about the ethics and responsibility of architecture as you do, and struggle/worry with architecture's relationship with power and the 1%, as well.

In this case, I think only the specifics of the firm and its relationship to the values that you are looking for can really answer your question.

To be honest, as a younger, greener architect, if I were you -- I wouldn't take the position, but would apply to other jobs, since I now have a perspective about how other firms value my work. It sounds like it would be a step backwards along the path that I'd be interested in and hold as ethically important. Is the short-term increase in income really worth a longer-term career detour?

Plus, since the offer came to you unsolicited, and thus it sounds like you haven't actively been looking for another job, how do you know there isn't another firm out there that matches your interest and values, and would pay better also?
posted by suedehead at 9:26 PM on June 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

ihavequestions: "I guess I want all that 1% wealth to magically go to where it is needed - schools, kids who don't have enough to eat right now in the US, net zero and better buildings."

Look, I'm pretty socialist in my views, but remember that building houses for rich people is not taking houses away from poor people. Heck, those rich people probably contribute more money to non-profits then you and I will ever be able to afford to do, and some of that money probably DOES go to feeding the hungry and improving educational opportunities and such.

Does that mean that you shouldn't privately look down your noses at them for spending so lavishly on multiple homes? Heck no. You are totally free to do that on your own time, even while profiting. No conflict unless it interferes with the quality of your work. And hey, while you don't get to control what those rich people what to do with their money, they don't get to control what you do with yours, either. They're not your adversary anyway, even if you don't have the same priorities.

Get the experience, make the connections, consider it a stepping stone. A very necessary one. The money for major projects utilizing green technology comes from commercial investors, and wealthy companies are run by wealthy people.
posted by desuetude at 9:33 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

A few things:

First of all, many wealthy people are concerned about upkeep costs on their houses, and they are interested in green(er) building methods.

Second, my experience is that when the budget is more open-ended, you have more freedom to pursue the ideas you want to do and propose interesting lines of business to your clients that you wouldn't have had the opportunity to do in other circumstances where budgets are tighter and both the clients and the firms can ill-afford to take any risks.

Next, there's no honor in keeping yourself underemployed. It means you're less able to do interesting work. The professional risks to you are going to be mostly the golden handcuffs problem-- every day you don't continue to take this kind of work you will see as days that you are leaving money on the table you could have but are giving up. Unless you foresee this job as having opportunities to screw other people over or behave unethically for money, I wouldn't have too many moral qualms about it.

I'm saying this as someone who left a job that was a bit more "pure" to work for a rather notorious corporation. And the difference in my new position is that I get more freedom, more respect, and I'm surrounded by colleagues who used to work in my previous industry but transitioned to apply their skills in a new environment, so I'm on the same intellectual wavelength-- and I get the opportunity to pursue interesting projects that will benefit my career in the direction I want to take it.

Do you really want to find yourself underemployed having to "explain yourself" in terms of "well, I turned down a job in architecture because I felt building mcmansions would be ethically compromising"? This is a paying-your-dues situation.

Money is always a way more complicated and highly emotionally charged issue than I first think

Money is a tool, nothing more. Turning it into an emotionally charged thing is exactly how people and up making ethically compromising decisions in search of money. Money isn't about keeping score, or about making you happy, or about merit. And not having it isn't a statement of hardscrabble virtue. It's just a tool you need to leverage to do the other stuff you want to do.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 9:45 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've spent a lot of time working for rich people, but in an unskilled labor sort of way. Personal assistant, personal shopper, whatever.

A lot of people work for rich people. If you're not rich, you're working for rich people. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, a lot of us are chugging along providing services for people with money. You are lucky in that you have a skill, and you are providing your expertise, and not just labor. Good for you.

Suck it up.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 9:53 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, your follow-up made me sad. I think you should reconsider.

Really, whether you should take the job is a question only you can answer, because work is rooted in personal values. If I were you, I'd think about two things. First, how much does your job matter to you? If you're a work-life balance type person, you may be able to meet your desire to make the world better, outside of your job -- through your family, through volunteering, or whatever. If your job matters a lot to you though, then you will need to do it through that avenue. That takes you to the second question: what do you want to be doing in ten years, and does this particular opportunity get you any closer.

I don't know enough about architecture to know if it's true that this could take you closer to green-type work. I'm guessing not, but maybe it could. You should find out. If it can --through contacts, expertise you'd develop, or whatever-- then take the job and keep working towards the career you want. But don't take the job thinking you'd be able to make non-green-oriented clients move towards green. That strikes me as a recipe for frustration, not doing well at work, and feeling stymied and stuck.

Don't apologize for wanting to make the world better and don't feel like you're being childish about this. Meaningful work is important to lots of people, and it's a totally legitimate thing to want, and to work towards. Good luck :)
posted by Susan PG at 9:58 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should also add that the notorious corporation I now work for has an amazingly-designed green building it constructed as its flagship headquarters. It's mindblowing how much detailed work they put into maximizing energy efficiency. The kinds of clients you're talking about are eventually going to be interested in that kind of stuff...

And, honestly, unless you're using your downtime that you would otherwise spend working feeding and healing orphans with skills that would otherwise cost megabucks to fund, there's nothing honorable about remaining underemployed. My grandmother was a successful craftswoman with her own store and maybe she did some work for some less-than-virtuous businessmen. Would it have been better for her to remain poor? I think her family and her sense of craft and self-respect was better off working as a talented artisan even if a few artisanal deliveries ended up in the lobbies of businesses run by people with no taste.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 9:58 PM on June 16, 2014

Also, I don't think anyone here is laughing at you, seriously. I think what you're reading as mockery is just some people's voices coming off as a bit flip, and others trying to help by being analytical.
posted by desuetude at 10:07 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

This job doesn't sound evil. It's good money, doing something that's not evil, that will gain you more experience and cred. As an idealist I understand the hesitation, but this is a real opportunity.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:48 PM on June 16, 2014

Also, the firm has high standards of excellence, which always appeals to me (they have to do excellent work to retain these clients). I like learning about materials, and I like doing excellent work.

This sounds like a great opportunity for you on the way to your dream green building future position. After all, you'll be interacting primarily with the coworkers, correct? I'm assuming that, unless you're the new lead architect or high up/established at the company, you're not going to be dealing with the clients much if at all.

this nagging sense of getting in bed with the enemy, losing my soul, going over to the dark side.

You might never even see a client (who could be a good person themselves, btw). I don't understand why you think you'll be corrupted by them. Could part of this be pre-job change jitters?
posted by sfkiddo at 11:08 PM on June 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I guess you are a young person (well, compared to me, most people are young). You are correct to assume that not all rich people are self indulgent assholes--or perhaps any combination of the epithets that may come to your mind.

Please don't delude yourself into thinking that you'll just dip your wick into this sort of thing, then withdraw when you have enough money to do whatever good work your present idealism envisions. My prediction is that you'll either become disgusted with your new "peers" and quit, or else you'll recalibrate your moral compass, and come to terms with a situation for which you now have a certain amount of contempt.

I don't want to get into the tedious details of an example from my own past, but I put up with a bad job because I liked the work, the area, and the people. I finally became disgusted and quit. I still consider the partial season I spent with that goddam outfit to have been shameful. If I had it to do over, I would have walked out after the first week, but I rationalized. I had just finished my apprenticeship as a farrier (about six months, after a year of schooling), and I already had a small client base. This was an opportunity to add 150 horses and mules to my client base, plus I got to participate in the spring roundup, gathering the stock from their winter pastures in the foothills. This is more fun and adventure than anybody ought have, even if the pay is traditionally pretty awful. Then I get to spend the bulk of the summer and autumn riding the trails in the High Sierras. I had heard rumors about this outfit, and I figured I could help change things. I was wrong.

My situation is obviously much less significant than your situation, but I believe the underlying issue is the same. I honestly don't know what I might have done if the stakes (for me) had been higher. I do know I felt like dogshit when I quit, but I began to feel better and better the farther my pickup got from the pack station. I often avoided telling any of my new clients that I worked for "so-and-so" because I was ashamed to be associated with him. Looking back now, I'm glad I felt that shame, because I don't ever want to be thought of as someone who thinks (what that outfit did) was okay.

I'm not trying to assume I know anything about this firm you are describing, but your description reminds me of this particular anecdote from my past. What you think is what is important. Lots of people talk the talk. Integrity is expensive, and you can't get anyone else to pay the bill for you.

Best of luck, however that turns out for you.
posted by mule98J at 1:02 AM on June 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'd take the job.

My particular situation is that I've been working for non-profits of various stripes for the past six years or so. The myth that working for a non-profit or another 'good cause' is inherently better than working for a private company is just that.

In my case, I've had over twelve months of constant uncertainty. "We might not be able to make payroll this month"; "We're going to have to make layoffs over the next couple of months"; "Don't count on getting paid on time next month" and so on. It really, really takes its toll mentally. I haven't been able to make any progress in my life, do anything positive outside of work, because the mental stress of non-stop precariousness makes it impossible to do anything other than go home and collapse in front of the internet or TV.

What I'm trying to say is that no employer, however altruistic they may claim to be, has any loyalty whatsoever to you as an employee. When the finances start to look a bit shaky, as they so often do with non-profits and other similar organisations and companies, they will have no compunction in screwing you over to protect themselves. When the chips are down, management will get rid of you to make sure they stay in their jobs whether you're working for Amnesty International or Halliburton.

You should just take the job working for the rich toffs. You're more likely to get paid on time each month because they actually have money, and you can use that money to do good work when you're not at work building Bond villain style homes for the uber-wealthy. You might as well have the stability to build your own life, rather than what I've had for the past few years working for good causes, which is no time or money or mental energy to do anything beyond basic survival week-to-week and month-to-month because you're constantly under the threat of late or no salary, or redundancy.
posted by winterhill at 1:39 AM on June 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

Capitalism is all about putting talent to work for the benefit of the capitalists, or the talent starves. It's shitty. It's inescapable, though. You aren't exempt, unfortunately. It's a huge privilege to even be able to have the choice!
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:11 AM on June 17, 2014

Take the job, gain the experience and think twice about generalizing the whole 1%.
posted by tgrundke at 4:22 AM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

I know this doesn't answer your main question, but just a suggestion.

I've heard stories from friends that worked in similar types of high-end design firms. There was quite a bit of drama that caused stress and distracted from the work, so it might be good to do some research in the local design community and see if people think this place is a good working environment or not.
posted by duoshao at 4:25 AM on June 17, 2014

I think it's completely okay to have values that you won't compromise when it comes to taking jobs (assuming you're cool with understanding that this is going to make it harder generally to find jobs).

I'm currently working for a software company which tries to be ethical and people/employee-focused and which has won a ton of awards for treating its staff really well...and I'm fairly heavily involved in the culture/internal communications side of things and every single time we do a shitty or not-great thing as a company (usually by accident/thoughtlessness rather than malice), it kills me inside. I could not work at a place that treats its employees woefully as a matter of course/policy, and even at my super nice friendly ethical company I frequently get so mad or sad or defeated when things happen that go against my personal values and/or the company values. When people say stuff that's not in keeping with good-heartedness and kindness to others and fundamental empathy, even as a joke. When people don't understand the power structures that benefit them and say or do things that they have no idea are going to be perceived really badly or hurt other people. When we just straight fuck up because we're humans and it's going to happen from time to time. I'm really sensitive to this stuff. And I know that I am, and I know that that's going to make it really hard for me to find another job when I want to move my career on because capitalism is just not set up to provide people like me with a plethora of kind, warm workplaces.

My reasons for not wanting to take a lot of jobs are different to your reasons for maybe not wanting to take this particular job, but I feel like it comes from the same place - you're not sure how much of yourself you can willingly compromise in the necessary name of making a living. And that's totally okay.

Lots of people in this thread have pointed out all the good reasons why you should consider taking the job, and I'm not saying you shouldn't take it - it's good advice. But I don't think it's as simple as "job pays money, you need money, ignore the ethics and cash in" for some people - it's not that simple for me and it might not be for you.

It's okay to take the job and like it/use it to support yourself and build your resume. It's also okay to take the job and find you can't really live with yourself and then find another job that doesn't make you feel that way. And it's okay not to take the job because of these concerns. All those choices are valid, but no one here can quantify the amount of yourself that you personally are willing to sell out in exchange for a paycheck, or where your own ethical boundaries lie. That one's on you.
posted by terretu at 5:35 AM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm in the camp that says 'take the job, even if you don't find yourself wanting to stay long,' and the reason is - I think you need to learn what rich people are like. They're assholes. Kind and generous. Irritable. Patient. Artistic. Obsessed with money. Obsessed with giving money away. I agree you won't really be working with 1%rs, but to name a couple - I think of Bill Gates who is giving more money away than some nations, probably, and on the other hand Steve Jobs, who felt entitled to park in Apple's handicapped parking spaces (when he was young and healthy).

In other words, they're like everybody else. There is a 'stock' stereotype of wealthy people in fiction, just like the stock stereotype of southerners, religious people, etc., and I think you would benefit from being around them to learn more about an area you have some admitted hang ups in.

And if you eventually enter a career in full-on non-profit save-the-world mode (and I encourage you to), it won't hurt to know some potential donors.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:57 AM on June 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'd recommend re-framing your outlook on this job. Watch or read Major Barbara. Shaw was very big on social change, and one thing he said about it was that it's easy to minister to the down-trodden, because anything offered to them is attractive, it's the ability to minister to the 1% (your words) and to make a difference there that matters.

People with money aren't inherently evil. People who have money, and who live lavishly are actually part of the economy, and in their way they create jobs, give to charity, and enrich the lives of others, even if they don't intend to do it.

You may find that some of these folks are likable and fun, and you may be able to convince them that building green, or investing in new technologies would be something they would like to do.

You say knee-jerk, and that says to me that you're not really thinking about this rationally. You're invoking prejudice and classism and a prevailing anti-business sentiment that's prevalent among the idealistic.

Let me tell you, the trades-people working on these houses don't have an issue taking rich people's money. The construction workers don't. The guy in the food truck who stops by at break time doesn't. Like it or not, rich people spending money like idiots is good for lots of people. Why not let it be good for you?

So, if the job pays you well, and gives you a platform to work with influential people who have the money use the green building methods you like, why would you be a coward and not try to convince them to use these methods?

Working with influential people gives you influence. Stop being a ninny about this, take the job and start influencing rich people.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:11 AM on June 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

Another thought. Rich people patronized the arts, without the Medicis, we wouldn't have the Rennaissance.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:14 AM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

One other thing I would consider is the likelihood of your finding a job that is more like what you want vs. the likelihood that you will stay underemployed for another three years. If the jobs you want don't exist or are super-rare, and you don't like the jobs people are willing to hire you for (high-end residential), maybe it's time to consider a career change or at least a tangent.
posted by mskyle at 6:33 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

(would prefer working in sustainability and green building, but haven't yet built the cred and connections to get a job in that area.)

I wanted the highlight this part and refer to an earlier comment I made-- you have been in the industry for a lot of years and haven't built the connections and skills to get you to where you want to be. That's ok! None of us are born with those skills, and we don't have those connections fall into our lap unless we have family connections. We get those things by "paying our dues" in the early stages of our careers.

Consider this is "dues paying" experience. And if that is too much for you, reconsider whether this field is for you-- you've obviously wanted to get into the green construction field for a while, and it hasn't happened. Think about what your goals for your career path are and try to figure out how you are going to get there. The moral risk you assume is that you never transition out of this kind of high-end work because they money is too good or you decide you like making these houses too much to give it up and you wake up in 20 years wondering where your career went. But that's on you and a risk you assumed when you decided to become an architect rather than a home care-giver or pediatric nurse in a community health clinic.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 6:36 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

So these people have money, and are not, in your opinion, using it wisely. So what? It's not your money to decide what to do with. In the process of not spending their money intelligently, however, these 1%-ers are choosing to give some of it to you (through your employer). All money is green, dude. Take their money, and spend it (or not) in what YOU consider to be a wise manner.

Besides, as you say yourself, the job has many good qualities compared to your current job (higher pay, shorter commute, company has high standards of quality, et cetera). Consider it a stepping stone to the sustainability/green building job you want. No one lands in their perfect job right away.
posted by tckma at 6:52 AM on June 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, laughing at rich people is fun. A lot of them are secretly bankrupt, have screwed up family relationships, or have addictions that would simply be impossible on a lower budget.

Jesus. Take the job, get to know your profession better, get to know rich people better, get to know yourself better, broaden your definition of humanity. There is only one thing that helps bridge class divide, in the micro or the macro, and that is everyone knowing each other better. Yes, people are the same everywhere: messed up finances, messed up families, messed up personal lives, tragedies, loneliness, physical pain, emotional pain, etc. etc. I guess that's funny based on how much money you have, or don't have. Some rich people are horrible. Some are great. Some poor people are horrible, some are great.

Some rich people have horrible design standards and a poor sense of materials vis a vis sustainability. Some rich people are the innovative drivers of your entire profession (which can't be said of every profession). You can't be a successful architect and have nothing to do with rich people, ever. You can pretend by having a job in which the chain of association is obscured, but you can not be a successful architect and not deal, in some way, with rich people. Especially if your professional ambition is to be on the cutting edge of green/sustainable design and if your personal ambition is to help create a better world for all. You can't ignore or avoid rich people in either scenario. Rather, you must get to know them.
posted by beanie at 7:03 AM on June 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

Go for it. Most of the Greenies are a bunch of hypocrites whose carbon footprint is bigger than 10 normal households. SUVs and large houses, private jets and so on. Michael Moore owns 9 properties. Al Gore’s mansion, [20-room, eight-bathroom] located in the posh Belle Meade area of Nashville, consumes more electricity every month than the average American household uses in an entire year, according to the Nashville Electric Service (NES). And who knows, perhaps you can work in a few energy efficient LEDs into the plan.
posted by Gungho at 7:07 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's 1%-ers like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie who are driving a lot of the green development in this country (in their case, in New Orleans).

My husband did some volunteer work with a solar/green group here in Texas, including hosting an open house showing off the latest in green homes. The family that owned the green home? Definitely affluent - if not 1%, then maybe 5%.

So, I am with the others saying, take the job, and be very intentional about these things -

* I will suggest green options to my clients
* I will earmark a portion of the additional money I earn to causes I support
* I will take this job as a specific springboard to the kind of green work I want to do, full time.
* If my job doesn't become "greener", I reserve the right to start my own green firm.
posted by mitschlag at 7:09 AM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

(Al Gore's house is now Gold LEED certified. and have details.)
posted by mitschlag at 7:15 AM on June 17, 2014

Ruthless Bunny: So, if the job pays you well, and gives you a platform to work with influential people who have the money use the green building methods you like, why would you be a coward and not try to convince them to use these methods?

I think the main problem is that if this firm isn't interested in green building, so it doesn't have the architects with certification/training/expertise and the consultants and contacts in order to do so, so even if the money's there, you won't be able to implement or learn about green building methods.

You can make "very non-green homes for the 1%", as you say this firm does.
You could also make "very green, LEED-certified homes for the 1%".

Most people saying "all money is green!" is saying that "designing homes for the 1% is okay!" But that's not really what's at stake here, I think. If you were designing ultra-expensive, LEED Platinum homes for the 1%, I'd say that it would be a net positive, since at least you'd be gaining precious, important knowledge.
posted by suedehead at 7:34 AM on June 17, 2014

I find it so interesting that you have chosen to go into architecture, a profession – unlike many others – that relies on the direct patronage and major, major investment of people and institutions and organizations with money. It literally does not get done without someone saying, yes, I will spend a minimum of several million dollars for this thing to get designed and built. It’s not like you’re treating everyone who comes in the emergency room doors or teaching every child who lives in the bounds of the school district. The job is, by definition, designing things for people who want to and can pay for them to be built.

What you are kind of saying is that you only want to build some kinds of buildings, for only some kinds of people, who have some significant amount of money - certainly enough to afford a whole building – but not too much money, because that suddenly that turns gross and evil!

You are well entitled to only want to do what you want for the people you want. But I would sit with it and think about what, in this case, money is a proxy for in your anxiety here because it will continue to be an issue, particularly if you are an architect but have a problem with people who have money to spend. You are in an industry where you will live and die by cultivating clientele. Of course it is up to you to pick and choose your clients as much as you can and as you see fit but think about why it is you are pre-rejecting the biggest clients before you even try.
posted by sestaaak at 9:23 AM on June 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

That 1% wealth isn't going to magically go to schools be cause we're still practicing "trickle down" economics. So take all that trickles into your bucket and go do your good with it.

Also, go browse some blogs about sustainable buildings and tell me how plebs afford them.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:57 AM on June 17, 2014

Luxury spending is incredibly great for all. It is a mechanism for those with lots of wealth to pump it out and pay to working class people. Paying millions of dollars to employ laborers/architects etc is actually a pretty beneficial outcome *given* that they already have the money. Consumption at this level does a lot to ease economic inequity, as opposed to strictly investment in high-capital industry.

Plus, you might build some deeper context and understanding about humans, and realize the world isn't divided up into them and us.
posted by jjmoney at 11:18 AM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

take the job, take the money. you'll get experience and contacts. and lots of rich people care about green stuff, so you may find yourself building an ultraexpensive LEED certified mansion or something.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 3:31 PM on June 17, 2014

I'm very interested in the part about preventing your idealist 'shadow' from sabotaging you whilst undercover in 1% land. I'm the guy who took this job despite raging ideals. My 'shadow' or the repressed bits never affected playing my role. People only cared about the quality of the work. In the rest of my life I made some in hindsight terrible choices which at the time I may have believed were in the service of keeping it real. I had more money than sense. However I totally succeded in getting in and getting out as though leaving a trail of rainbows and unicorns. Ask for a tour of the workplace at the interview though. I only ever got burned once at this one place where I forgot that.
posted by yoHighness at 6:37 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

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