What Price Career?

By Published on .

How times change. In the weeks immediately following Sept. 11, there was a flurry of activity as people rushed to reevaluate their life and career choices. Americans seemed to be asking themselves: Is this what I really want to do? Facing the possibility of not fulfilling their dreams, people talked of dropping out of the corporate rat race or doing something completely different. But it seems that with time comes perspective and a more pragmatic outlook. Instead of chucking their jobs and following their dreams, people are staying put, says Phoenix-based corporate trainer Marcia Reynolds. In these turbulent times, they're lucky to have jobs, she says. “A lot of people are scrambling to keep their heads above water now,� says Philip Preston, senior vice president of Comforce, a Woodbury, N.Y. staffing and consulting firm. “They're just waiting for the next wave to crash down over them and hoping they don't get washed away.�

Since 9/11, people have become more worried than ever about the nation's economic viability, as well as their own. In the fourth quarter of 2001, we learned the country had been in a recession since March of that year. Then the worst unemployment rates since 1994 left workers clinging to their jobs. This year, we've been bombarded by a stream of corporate scandals, from cooked books and shredded documents to deceit in the executive suite. The tanking stock market has investors clutching shrinking nest eggs and wondering whether they'll ever be able to retire. These concerns may well be why almost a quarter of Americans today say that making money is more important to them now than it was before the attacks.

Despite this backdrop of personal and national economic uncertainty, the moral chord struck by 9/11 continues to resonate. The vast majority of Americans today still say that spending time with family, helping others and serving their country are more important to them now than before the terrorists struck.

To gain a better perspective on how Americans have or have not altered their attitudes and behaviors regarding their work lives since last September, American Demographics replicated in June the same exclusive survey we conducted immediately after the attacks. Both surveys were conducted by telephone with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults by TeleNation, a service of Market Facts that's based in Arlington Heights, Ill. The first survey was fielded from Sept. 28 to 30, 2001, the second between June 28 and 30, 2002.

A comparison of the surveys shows that increasing percentages of people say practical activities mean more to them now than before the terrorist strikes. For instance, more Americans (32 percent) are concerned with getting ahead and making lots of money (22 percent) than they were last September (30 percent and 19 percent, respectively). Closer scrutiny reveals that the demographic groups experiencing the greatest upsurges in these more hard-nosed values are, not surprisingly, those with young families to support. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, for example, the share of those who value making lots of money was 31 percent, up from 20 percent who said that last fall. Similarly, a quarter of both 35- to 44-year-olds and parents of all ages said they now value making lots of money (17 percent and 19 percent, respectively, held that view in September 2001).

At the same time, all three of these demographic groups are also the ones more likely to say they want to retire at an earlier age. In June, 38 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds and 41 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds said they were interested in retiring young, compared with 20 percent and 27 percent of those groups, respectively, who said the same last fall. Among parents, the increase in the desire to retire young jumped to 36 percent, from 24 percent, right after 9/11. This is consistent with findings that show that these groups are also the most likely to say that spending time with family means more to them now than before the attacks (about 79 percent of the three demographic groups, compared with 70 percent of all Americans). Retiring young is one way to gain more family time.

With economic stability at a premium, it's not surprising that getting ahead and making lots of money are becoming more important, says Paul Gore, assistant professor of psychology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. “What's closest or most salient to people now affects how they see the world,� he says. Just as someone who has been wandering the desert for a week might think only of water, our most immediate needs tend to shape our values. As memories of Sept. 11 have faded, the unraveling of corporate America has captured our attention.

But it seems that young people, more so than other demographic groups, have lost some of their optimism in the past year. The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who feel that doing things they enjoy is more meaningful since 9/11 fell to 53 percent in June, from 73 percent last fall. And even though 60 percent of Americans overall say they value serving their country more now than before the attacks, the share of young people who say that dropped to 48 percent from 78 percent. Gore believes these shifts are due to the group's lack of stability. Since young adults' career interests don't begin to gel until their mid-20s, he says, and because they still haven't figured out what matters most to them, their radical shifts in attitudes are not surprising.

Over the past year, another group that experienced major shifts in attitude about the balance between life and work is adults closing in on retirement. The share of 55- to 64-year-olds who say spending time with family matters more since 9/11 sunk to 60 percent in June, from 78 percent in September. Those who said “doing things I enjoy� matters more declined to 51 percent from 72 percent. These changes reflect the concerns of people who stand to lose the most from the turmoil in the stock market, says Gore. In better days, they would be preparing to cash out. But today they're reeling from seeing a sizable portion of their nest egg vanish as the stock market heads south. Given a choice of living for today and doing things they enjoy or of planning for tomorrow by working more so they can eventually retire, it's not surprising they chose the latter, Gore adds.

It seems likely that Americans will have to live with more questions than answers. Yet people are responding with resilience, says Madelyn Hochstein, president and cofounder of DYG Inc., a Danbury, Conn.-based social and market research firm. She says that the change in the economy and the need to learn how to live in a new world of uncertainty since Sept. 11 have brought people back to reality. What we take away from 9/11, she believes, is that we're lucky to be alive. “Instead of grumbling about their jobs' shortcomings,� says Hochstein, “Americans are trying to make the most of what they've got.�

To that end, while workers may be staying put in their jobs, many are demanding better working conditions from their employers, says corporate trainer Reynolds. Layoffs have left employees embittered, and many are frustrated because their workloads are heavier. Business leaders are finally starting to take note, as a whole range of corrosive emotions begin to erode productivity. Since last September, Reynolds has seen an increase in demand for the seminars in which she teaches coping skills to employees, giving them tips on how to work better with others and on how to gain perspective so that they can move forward or at least overcome their present job dissatisfaction. Even managers are much more receptive to her courses on emotional intelligence than they used to be, she says. “They just know the workplace and their workers are not the same,� says Reynolds. “Something has to change.�

Shifting Priorities

Only 7 in 10 people say spending time with family matters more now than before the Sept. 11 attacks, down from 8 in 10 who agreed last September.


TOTAL 18-24 25-34 35-44 45-54 55-64 65+ MALE FEMALE
9/01 6/02 9/01 6/02 9/01 6/02 9/01 6/02 9/01 6/02 9/01 6/02 9/01 6/02 9/01 6/02 9/01 6/02
Spending time with family 77% 70% 90% 69% 79% 79% 76% 79% 69% 60% 78% 60% 76% 69% 75% 67% 80% 73%
Helping others 73% 66% 82% 60% 72% 76% 70% 68% 66% 58% 73% 62% 79% 69% 74% 63% 71% 68%
Doing things I enjoy 63% 61% 73% 53% 59% 71% 63% 66% 58% 57% 72% 51% 55% 59% 61% 56% 64% 65%
Serving the country 67% 60% 78% 48% 61% 63% 67% 61% 59% 51% 75% 63% 71% 71% 67% 57% 67% 62%
Retiring young 27% 33% 20% 27% 20% 38% 27% 41% 32% 32% 38% 31% 24% 24% 26% 36% 27% 31%
Getting ahead 30% 32% 53% 39% 35% 43% 28% 34% 20% 23% 29% 27% 23% 25% 35% 34% 27% 30%
Making lots of money 19% 22% 28% 26% 20% 31% 17% 25% 15% 16% 19% 19% 18% 16% 25% 28% 14% 17%
Source: American Demographics/TeleNation, a service of Market Facts

Labors of Sisyphus

People are more likely now to put in extra time at work, without expecting more pay, than they were last September.


SEPT.-01 JUNE-02 SEPT.-01 JUNE-02
Put in extra time without expecting more pay 13% 16% 9% 10%
Arrived later or left work earlier 10% 11% 8% 8%
Talked to co-workers I never spoke to before 18% 15% 2% 3%
Source: American Demographics/TeleNation, a service of MarketFacts Inc.

Gio Gutierrez

Futurist, Institute for Alternative Futures, Alexandria, Virginia

“There's no doubt that the events of Sept. 11 had a significant impact on peoples' lives in various ways. For example, there have been some discernible changes in the American consumer, in particular, consumers' attitudes toward security. Not only is this reflected in people's vigilance over anything out of the ordinary or suspicious, it's also in their own sense of security within their homes.

An increase in insurance policies for the home as well as for individuals, has been noticeable. The ironic twist is that some consumers are finding that insurers are also responding to the events of Sept. 11 by adding exemption clauses for acts of terror to many of their new policies. This trend will have a lasting impact on consumer behavior, especially since our government has such a direct influence through the Homeland Security's efforts and the ever-permanent state of alert.

A trend that has had a direct benefit to retailers is Americans' cocooning response to the attacks. Although this has manifested itself in various ways, the result has led to more sales at homeimprovement stores and more entertaining in the home.�

Cachet Quotient

Firefighters, soldiers and police officers all gained esteem in the eyes of Americans immediately after Sept. 11, and that admiration remains just as strong a year later. In both our surveys, 79 percent of Americans stated that the occupation of fireman gained in prestige since Sept. 11. Similarly, 78 percent said soldiers had gained status, up from 74 percent. The number of Americans who say police officers have gained stature remains steady, at 72 percent in June, down only slightly from 74 percent in September.

But awe for these occupations is expressed to an even greater degree among certain demographic groups today than it was immediately after the attacks. For instance, in June, 87 percent of college grads felt that firemen had gained greater prestige, compared with 72 percent who believed that last fall. And since the “war on terror� began, college-educated Americans seem to have similarly increased their respect for military personnel. In June, 79 percent of this group said that they thought being a soldier was a prestigious occupation, compared with 57 percent who felt the same right after the terrorists struck.

Doctors dropped the most in prestige (18 percentage points) in the past year. In June, 4 in 10 (40 percent) respondents said they felt the career had more prestige after Sept. 11, down from almost 6 in 10 (58 percent) in September. This drop is not surprising to Pamela York Klainer, a Rochester, N.Y.-based workplace consultant and author of How Much Is Enough? (Basic Books, 2002). In the wake of the anthrax scares, she says, our health-care system and, by extension, the nation's doctors have been found ill-prepared and poorly equipped.

The June survey also reflects a reshuffling of occupations that experienced the greatest declines in stature. Between September 2001 and June 2002, investment bankers sank in status, dropping even lower than politicians and lawyers. Americans seem to view some occupations through a new, financially depressed, post-Sept. 11 prism. During the boom years of the 1990s, investment bankers helped put together deals that fueled the economy. Greed was good. In retrospect, in the 1990s we burned through billions of dollars of capital, says Klainer, and are now left with little to show for it. “Those top-gun investment bankers don't look so good anymore,� she says. “And neither do the lawyers and politicians who failed to protect us.�

— SY


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?

Most Valued Worker

Percentage of respondents who feel this is an occupation of greater prestige:

2002 2001
Fireman 79% 1 79% 1
Soldier 78% 2 74% 2
Police Officer 72% 3 74% 2
Doctor 40% 4 58% 3
Teacher 39% 5 46% 4
Politician 18% 6 33% 5
Lawyer 11% 7 15% 6
Athlete 9% 8 10% 9
Entertainer 9% 8 13% 8
Investment Banker 8% 9 14% 7
Source: American Demographics/TeleNation, a service of Market Facts

Status on the Decline

Percentage of respondents who feel this is an occupation of less prestige:

2002 2001
Investment Banker 32% 1 13% 5
Politician 30% 2 16% 4
Lawyer 25% 3 17% 3
Athlete 22% 4 28% 1
Entertainer 21% 5 27% 2
Teacher 5% 6 3% 6
Police Officer 4% 7 2% 7
Doctor 3% 8 2% 7
Soldier 3% 8 2% 7
Fireman 2% 9 1% 8
Source: American Demographics/TeleNation, a service of Market Facts

Unanimous Vote

Percentage of respondents who feel this is an occupation of less prestige:

SEPT.-01 JUNE-02 SEPT.-01 JUNE-02 SEPT.-01 JUNE-02 SEPT.-01 JUNE-02
Athlete 25% 24% 24% 24% 29% 22% 31% 20%
Doctor 0% 4% 1% 4% 2% 2% 3% 3%
Entertainer 22% 21% 25% 20% 29% 22% 28% 22%
Fireman 0% 4% 1% 1% 0% 2% 2% 2%
Lawyer 16% 24% 14% 27% 16% 22% 22% 28%
Soldier 0% 4% 2% 4% 1% 2% 4% 2%
Politician 14% 30% 14% 30% 16% 30% 20% 30%
Investment banker 12% 36% 10% 31% 13% 30% 18% 34%
Police officer 0% 3% 1% 3% 2% 3% 4% 5%
Teacher 2% 6% 2% 6% 3% 5% 5% 5%
Source: American Demographics/TeleNation, a service of Market Facts
Most Popular