THE BLOG
09/09/2016 09:11 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2017

Work Worth Dying For?

By Christopher Michaelson and Jennifer Tosti-Kharas

When the first plane crashed on September 11, 2001, we were both management consultants living in Manhattan. One of us was leaving a Washington, DC hotel for a client while trying to get through jammed phone lines to his wife and baby. The other was still in bed after returning from the office at 3am.

For us, as for many, 9/11 prompted reexamination of our lives. We both embarked on new academic livelihoods, enabling us to explore meaningful work without presuming to have discovered it more than anyone else has. When we met five years later, we found our research was motivated by similar, persistent questions: Why do people work? Should it be for something more than a paycheck or promotion?

These questions take on increased significance in the context of 9/11, when so many people died at work. The Twin Towers were "a city within a city," a microcosm of those living and working in New York at the time. The rich and powerful worked alongside those struggling to make ends meet. Indeed, the victims of 9/11 spanned occupations from busboys to bond traders, firefighters to photographers.

Was their work worth dying for?

We will never know the victims' own answers to that question. However, the New York Times' "Portraits of Grief" provide insight into their legacies according to those who knew them best. These brief journalistic profiles often relied on interviews with victims' loved ones to account for their subjects' work, while emphasizing what meant most in their lives. They contain clues to our social values about what work means within the context of a finished life. Our research is analyzing the Portraits to better understand the role of work in the victims' legacies. Consider three examples:

Christopher J. Blackwell was a fireman for 20 years in Rescue Company 3 in the South Bronx. He was a third-generation New York first responder. His wife described him as a devoted family man who loved his work. His mother added, "He lived and died with purpose."

For Yelena "Helen" Belilovsky, being named assistant vice president at Fred Alger Management was a source of pride. It was the latest step on her immigrant's journey in which she overcame language struggles to earn a Master's degree and a burgeoning livelihood.

"Crunching numbers" as a temp at Aon Corporation was Darren Bohan's "day job." His real love was music, especially banjo and guitar, which he played at night with his girlfriend. He dreamed of one day working in music full-time, perhaps as a teacher.

These three Portraits map to the ways people can view their work: as a calling, career, or job. Work as a "calling" is a consuming passion of value in itself. Many firefighters, like Blackwell, were described as being born to do what they did. Work as a "career" is about advancing within an organizational or occupational hierarchy, as Belilovsky was demonstrating. Unlike some career stories, hers characterizes status as a symbol of security rather than as a vain pursuit. Work as a "job" is a means to other ends, such as Bohan's music.

In past studies, when working people were asked to choose how much they felt a description of work as a job, career, or a calling described their own relationship to their work, two interesting trends emerged. First, there was an even distribution of people across calling, career, and job. Second, people categorized themselves seemingly independently of their occupation or job title. A busboy can report a calling, and a CEO can report a job.

In the Portraits, loved ones consistently positioned work among other things that made the victims' lives worth living. Yet most loved ones indicated that other elements of the good life were more important than work, such as family, hobbies, and exploring the world.

When we examined just the Portraits in which work was presented as more than a job title and employer's name, the results were striking. They most commonly portrayed work as a calling, then as a job. Only a handful depicted careers.

Why were so many 9/11 victims called to work every day, and that fateful morning? Perhaps this is because so many attack victims represented helping professions, such as firefighting. Another explanation might be our tendency to romanticize, seeking meaningfulness in work that took a loved one away.

Why, in a city marked by status symbols, were careers reported far less than usual? It appears that career concerns matter little for our legacies. What mattered more to victims' loved ones was that work was either worth dying for or enabled other things worth living for. What mattered less were corporate ladders climbed, performance reviews, and office politics.

This observation seems particularly bittersweet, since we expend much of our daily energies trying to do what it takes to get ahead in our careers. When you return to work on September 12, honor the victims by doing work that would be worth doing every day, even if it were your last.

Christopher Michaelson is David A. and Barbara Koch Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility at the University of St. Thomas and on the Business and Society Faculty of New York University. Jennifer Tosti-Kharas is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Babson College.