You Are Not Where You Work

Send questions about the office, money, careers and work-life balance to workfriend@nytimes.com. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.

I work at a high-end grocery store chain acquired by the largest global online retailer. I’ve been feeling underwhelmed by my impact, careerwise, on the planet and on humanity. Many people I work with feel the same.

Recently, I was awarded a retention bonus. A $1.50-per-hour raise was given to five people in my store as determined by my store leadership, in recognition of hard work and a positive attitude. I asked if I will ever know who the other four are and I was told no. As an unskilled high school graduate, my $21 hourly rate plus the (high-deductible) health insurance are a better package than I could find anywhere else.

My family has always been low-income and dependent on government programs. I’m a hero to them, but I do really believe that my company is objectively making the planet worse. I don’t know what to do. Please help. Am I stupid to stay? Is it fair to my co-workers who didn’t get the raise? What do I do with myself? I want security, but I also want to do something good with my life.

— Anonymous

Your anxiety here is palpable, and I understand the difficult decisions you are trying to make as a conscientious person. You are not stupid to stay in a job that pays you well and allows you to provide for yourself and your family. You are not being unfair in receiving a raise you have clearly earned. Your company is being unfair with their lack of pay transparency, only giving five people a raise, and obscuring who received those raises for inscrutable reasons. There are many problems with capitalism but foremost, for many people, are the ways in which we must compromise ourselves to earn a living.

When working for the world’s largest global online retailer or its subsidiaries, you have to balance pay and benefits with knowing your inadequately compensated labor is allowing one of the world’s wealthiest men to grow ever wealthier, while launching himself and his friends into the void before actual outer space. But are you really allowing such a thing? No. You aren’t. You’re simply doing the best you can. This is one of those situations where you need to put the onus of responsibility where it belongs: squarely on the shoulders of your employer. The company chooses to pay people inadequately. They choose to monopolize marketplaces, driving prices down to gain more customers. And it is those customers who shop at your store who enable all of this, not you and your co-workers. Certainly, you can quit your job, but whom will that benefit?

The question of wanting to do something good with your life is a powerful one. I urge you to decouple your self-worth and contributions to humanity from your employment. You are not what you do for a living. So how can you feel like you’re making more of an impact in this world? That’s not a question I can answer for you, but I will encourage you to sit with that question and consider ways you can contribute to your community. Certainly, you can fulfill your civic responsibility by voting, but what more can you do? Is there a nonprofit doing work you believe in that you can volunteer for? Are there mutual aid groups you can work with? Start small and therein, you will find at least some of the answers for what you can do with yourself. You will do something good with your life. You already are.

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