In these quiet closing days of 2016
Agency is the capacity of an actor (person or entity, human or living being) to act in any given environment. It often brings with it empowerment.
by Heidi Legg
I have spent a surprising amount of time over the past few months noticing when and how we feel agency in our lives. Agency has wafted into my days as our teenager, in what felt like an overnight transformation, strode into a large urban high school and owned the experience. It rang again when a friend landed two jobs, turning her A-symmetrical relationship with her career into one of empowerment. I saw it when a group of friends mobilized to build bike paths and build coalitions and I listen to it every time I interview one of the people I bring to you.
But its loss has been palpable too. This year's election result, for me, was a call for agency – Clanging so loudly that people were willing to vote for a person who doesn't actually share their values.
As I watch my growing kids find their agency, that same agency my husband has long had as the main breadwinner (translation: more freedom to hone one's agency), I too have had to search for that it. I've noticed that even the most stalwart need to dig deep to muster the courage to find it again.
The reality is we are a country in transition. There are fewer jobs that pay well, and even less for those graduating from college or who stepped out to raise kids and I can see how that could slowly turn to bitterness. Add to that stagnant salaries and I can open my mind to angry, white-men in their 50s and 60s who feel disenfranchised, who read feeling vulnerable, as being cheated. I understand the burn of millennial young adults living at home with their parents steeped in college debt. And I can only imagine that African Americans in this country who fear for their safety, and that of their children, have had enough.
When I graduated from grad school in 1994, there were five or six job offers for every newly minted grad. The promise of the Internet equated to group brainstorms with your friends and the freedom to build something. Maker spaces were ubiquitous. The Internet was the new America. In fact, it embodied everything we miss about the American Dream. Anything was possible and everyone was invited. Today, it feels insurmountable, daunting and impossible.
How then, over these short 20 years, did we lose the agency that was the elixir of GenerationX? How do we revive the generation Douglas Coupland coined as heartfelt storytellers and fantastical creators who binged on John Hughes' movies?
Was it the three trillion we've spent on wars in the past two decades? Was it the fear that ensued after 9/11 that rode off with the courage once roused by Paul Revere? Or is it my vantage point in a disrupted age of dying newspapers where everyone is now a journalist? Or is it too many VC-backed unicorns that hail efficiency and agency as one in the same and take with them main street and your local bookstore? Or is the baby boomer demographic simply so gigantic that they won't get out of the way for the next Generation – not their offspring millennials – but that tiny, mighty mass called GenX? These are the things I have thought about in my quiet moments.
As we close 2016, I finally recognize the end of the big fish in a small pond. And as the pond becomes singular, on a global scale, where we all watch the same news, read the same blockbuster books, and use the same mass-produced gadgets, one pond means very few with agency and it leaves for little biodiversity. Darwin warned of this. I doubt a turn toward insular nations will fix it. But maybe a turn toward individual will, may.
In search of a new model, I started to binge watch Borgen where a woman Prime Minister, Brigitte, runs Denmark. It is not lost on me that the pages of Borgen have been written precisely for women my age and demographic, disenfranchised with their limited agency and loss of what could have been... add gorgeous: wardrobe, driver, husband and artwork in her high-ceilinged office. I digress. But then, in episode 10, I finally stopped mourning what could have been. In need of a game changing speech for his PM, her young male Danish scribe turns to an American doctrine written in January 1961.
"My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man (woman/people)." – JFK
And there it was. You see, agency is not an invitation, but an action. It is something you take on. It calls us to push forward and invent under new paradigms. It asks us to take what we know, what we value, and integrate it into modernity and into the lives around us, even in our micro-climates. I don't have the answer of what it is you should do, or what it is that will move you and those around you, but I know one thing....you don't have to be elected to try it or assume leadership.
In this season of quiet light, I wish for you time and space to think about where your agency lies and surround yourself with the people that believe in you and push you forward.