By Published on .

The first day, no one worked at all. The second day, people trickled back half-heartedly to their offices. The rest of the week seemed to pass in a blur. But the week following Sept. 11 — the deluge. Suddenly, career coaches were inundated with phone calls, from people wondering whether to return to the office at all. Two weeks after the attacks, the International Coach Federation opened a 24-hour help line to give a hand to overworked career coaches. Callers reported that many more people were reevaluating their purpose, direction and careers, says Phoenix-based corporate trainer Marcia Reynolds. In her own practice, Reynolds says she saw a one-third increase in business in the weeks after the tragedy. Many people, she says, started thinking “It's time to reevaluate who I am, what I'm doing and where I'm doing it.�

A collective sense of self-absorption punctured, priorities reshuffled and individual lives impacted in a variety of ways, Americans are re-examining their careers and how they work. With the feats of firefighters and the bravery of rescue workers in the headlines, people found themselves looking at their own work lives and feeling like their jobs were either meaningless or irrelevant. From what they do all day, how much time they spend in the office to where they see themselves five years from now, Americans are asking themselves, “Is this what I really want to do?�

That question may signal the beginning of a Zeitgeist shift — a change in values or the spirit of the time, says Paul Gore, assistant professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. At the moment, says Gore, “We certainly are in a place that's characterized by a broader purpose beyond individualism.�

The prosperity and complacency that dominated the previous decade encouraged a very different career pattern from the public service orientation that is emerging in current poll results. In the 1990s, a time when high net worth was a prime measure of success, Bill Gates and Jack Welch were American heroes. Over half (52 percent) of college students and recent graduates expected to make their first million by the time they were 40 years old, according to a spring 2000 online survey by, an occupational listing service.

That seems to have changed. According to an exclusive survey commissioned by American Demographics and conducted Sept. 28 to 30 by Market Facts, Inc.'s TeleNation service, more than three-quarters of the 1,000 respondents say spending time with family matters more to them now than before Sept. 11. Helping others (73 percent), and serving the country (67 percent) have also taken on greater significance. In comparison, only 19 percent say making lots of money matters more and only 30 percent say the same of getting ahead.

The government is already benefiting from a surge of interest in public service. The CIA received 9,746 résumés by e-mail between Sept. 11 and 25, up from 2,760 over the same period last year. When the FBI issued a plea for Arabic, Farsi or Pashto speakers, 15,000 applied for 200 positions between Sept. 17 and Oct. 1. As of the end of October, the FBI would not provide updated recruitment numbers, for fear of deterring potential applicants.

For some, the attacks revived dormant plans to switch careers. Romolo Marcucci, senior vice president of Comforce Corp., a Woodbury, N.Y. staffing and consulting firm, says his clients are finally pushing ahead with major life changes. As an example, Marcucci cites the case of a couple — a teacher and a marketing executive — who frequently talked of opening a bed-and-breakfast, but kept postponing their decision. Not long after Sept. 11, they began visiting potential sites in Vermont and the Carolinas.

Americans' overall impression of the work/career landscape seems to have altered, as people not only reconsider what they're doing with their own lives, but also look at other peoples' choices in new ways. According to the American Demographics/MarketFacts survey, more than three-quarters of respondents said they now see firefighter, policeman and soldier as more prestigious occupations than before. Those occupations that lost cachet: Athletes, entertainers and lawyers led in occupations that lost prestige. Almost 1 in 3 people consider athletes (28 percent) and entertainers (27 percent) less prestigious today than prior to Sept. 11.

Part of the shift in opinion is the result of a changed view of the proper balance of life with work. For Chicago-based psychologist and business consultant Laurie Anderson, being available to her children has become a more pressing need. Hence, she's turning down requests to consult on-site with companies out of town, and finding other ways to advise them, whether through correspondence or media engagements. “I'm rethinking how I can make a difference while being close to my children,� Anderson says.

“People are more willing to reaffirm that they have a life outside of work and that they have other concerns outside of work,� says Ed Cafasso, senior vice president of public relations agency Morrissey & Co. in Boston. “In the past couple of weeks, I think the balance has shifted more to life-oriented issues,� he says. People are leaving the office for a few days when relatives have babies, leaving early for family birthday parties and school plays, and even coming in early so they can get home for dinner, he adds. Recently, when Cafasso and his employees took a day off to go canoeing on the Charles River, they didn't resort to subterfuge and claim they were conducting an off-site team meeting. They told the truth, knowing the clients would understand. Perhaps their clients would even approve.

most valued worker

After Sept. 11, firefighters and police officers became more highly regarded, while athletes and entertainers sank in status.

In the wake of the events of Sept. 11, do you feel this is an occupation of greater prestige, the same prestige or less prestige?*
Athlete 10% 59% 28%
Doctor 58% 38% 2%
Entertainer 13% 57% 27%
Firefighter 79% 19% 1%
Lawyer 15% 64% 17%
Soldier 74% 22% 2%
Politician 33% 48% 16%
Investment banker 14% 68% 13%
Police officer 74% 22% 2%
Teacher 46% 49% 3%
*Numbers do not add up to 100%, because some respondents didn't know or refused to answer.
Source: American Demographics/TeleNation, Market Facts, Inc.

rising priorities

Almost 3 in 4 people (73 percent) say helping others means more to them now than before Sept. 11.

This means more to me now than before the Sept. 11 attacks:

TOTAL MALE FEMALE 18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+ MARRIED OTHER
Spending time with family 77% 75% 80% 90% 79% 76% 69% 78% 76% 76% 79%
Helping others 73% 74% 71% 82% 72% 70% 66% 73% 79% 72% 74%
Serving the country 67% 67% 67% 78% 61% 67% 59% 75% 71% 66% 69%
Doing things I enjoy 63% 61% 64% 73% 59% 63% 58% 72% 55% 62% 63%
Getting ahead 30% 35% 27% 53% 35% 28% 20% 29% 23% 24% 39%
Retiring young 27% 26% 27% 20% 20% 27% 32% 38% 24% 28% 24%
Making lots of money 19% 25% 14% 28% 20% 17% 15% 19% 18% 16% 23%
Source: American Demographics/TeleNation, Market Facts, Inc.
Most Popular
In this article: