Q: For more than 20 years, I had the job I always dreamed about. I knew since junior high I wanted to work in what was then called “the record business.” After graduating from college, I landed a job at a PR firm, and over the years grew to a senior VP position earning well over six figures with a nice, steady bonus. After the president of the company was unceremoniously booted from the firm he had founded, a new guy came in and within a short period fired people he felt had loyalty to the old regime. So after more than 20 years, I was out. For the next 15 or so years, I stayed involved in music but could never land a position like I had previously.
Last year, I got separated and moved across the country. Although I had money coming in from my pension and early Social Security payments, I was depressed I couldn’t fit back into what the business had morphed into. Finally, after encouragement from my kids, I decided to apply for a job at a retail chain I respected. Although the pay scale was at the opposite side of what I was making, I thought it would be good for me to be doing something and I figured I could be an asset. Now, six months later, I just got promoted and received a small bonus for being associate of the quarter.
When I walked out of the store after being told the news, I was so happy I wanted to post about it, but I am a bit hesitant that people who knew me in my prior life, working with big-name musical artists, will think less of me now. Even people I work with now don’t know about my history. I’m comfortable with my transition, I just don’t know how others will be. How would you suggest I come to terms with this? — K.L., Houston
A: I spend far more time than I care to admit thinking about what field I can enter after my luck getting jobs in the constantly shrinking industry in which I am employed finally dries up. Fantasizing about a world in which Facebook and private equity do not control my future occasionally feels freeing, but more often it sends me into a spiral of despair because of my lack of marketable skills.
Which is all to say that I envy you greatly, K.L. Forced out of a job you loved by shifting winds and capricious bosses, you made a new life for yourself, one in which you are thriving at work and being rewarded for it. We should all be so lucky.
And yet, as you describe those class anxieties, I relate to them so viscerally I practically shiver. I try to think about my hypothetical second career based on what I’d enjoy doing, not on what would be equally prestigious, but sometimes the idea of hypothetical people gossiping about how far I’ve hypothetically “fallen” creeps into my head, and it’s worse than any nightmare I’ve ever had. Money and status have a funny way of bringing out all our other neuroses, too.
The good news is that you have an opportunity to make a real difference. There’s no way to make anything feel less fraught without talking openly about it, so if you announce on Facebook that you’re loving your retail job and you’re proud to have been promoted, I promise you it will stick in someone’s mind the next time they’re in a similar situation. Sure, some fake friends and old rivals will most likely make a joke or two behind your back, but I’d wager that an order of magnitude more people will be genuinely happy that you’re doing so well and relieved that you’re showing them a version of life they’ve been irrationally afraid of. I know I am.
The best drama happens at snack time
Q: My co-worker and I have an informal snack corner in our shared cubicle. We actually enjoy it when people stop by throughout the day and shoot the breeze and eat some salty and sweet items that we provide. But there are some co-workers who either don’t contribute or bring a single box of cookies per month and act as if they deserve a medal. It isn’t the money but the principle — my cubicle mate and I hate cheap people. How should we handle this? — Paul, Los Angeles
A: This is a very nice thing to do! I wonder if people just think you’re even nicer? You don’t owe them an unlimited supply of treats, of course, but have you ever been specific about the terms? I will confess to occasionally dropping in on a co-worker pal who always has a good stash of candy, and I have never brought her some in return. You have shown me the error of my ways; now you have to do the same for your colleagues. Put up a sign that says “contributions appreciated,” and watch the treats flow in. Meanwhile, I’m going to the bodega to restock for my co-worker.
Work Friend is a cheeky New York Times advice column to help with careers, money and the sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious maze that is the contemporary office, from a rotating cast of advice-givers. Email questions to email@example.com.