Agency – it’s what matters

One of the  key things about sentient beings is agency – self direction. This struck me particularly when I read this Do Britons feel rich or poor? article in the Guardian. The Surrey PR lady who doesn’t feel rich  on far more than I have ever earned wants a slap round the chops with a wet fish.

“Considering my husband works 6.30am-10pm, and I’m also working three days a week, you’d expect to have your own home. We’ve got a car that’s nearly 10 years old; we can’t afford holidays. […] we’ve been to university, we’ve both worked our backsides off, and we’re not seeming to get the rewards for it.

Earth to Surrey PR – take a step back, ask yourself what you’re doing and why it makes you feel pissed off like that. What the hell is the point of putting up with the stress of earning all that money if you don’t get enhancement of quality of life from it 😉

In contrast, the high-rolling piano-playing business woman knows what she wants and she knows how to get it. She is living her values and can express them well.

“To me, money is a form of expression. I need nothing. Do I want? Hell, yes.”

I salute the lady. That’s a different kind of intentional living. If you’re going to earn a shitload of money, then know why you’re doing it, and enjoy it FFS. Her story is couched it terms of agency, whereas Stuff Happens to the disaffected PR and the 34 year old MD.

Lest you say it’s easy for our piano player who has a household income of 1,000,000 a year, well yes. Her agency speaks in her history – single mum on divorce, prepared to sell her jewellery, take a lifestyle hit and teach yoga to pay her kids’ school fees. That’s agency – and it speaks in where she is now.


Intern – she provided the most balanced and objective asessment

You don’t have to be rich to have agency. Look at the 20-year olds. The intern and the call centre worker seem to be much more balanced than the PR lady and the MD with a 120k. The singles seem to have a better handle on things too.

The homeopath has agency, even with the cheesy “Pay the deposit and the universe will supply the balance” mantra, but at least it sounds like it’s hers, and she is living her values. That’s agency. It shows in many of the other people in that study, the lawyer, the call centre op, the teacher. What’s notable is they aren’t all rich. Some would be classified as poor in money terms.

Agency. It matters in a sentient being. If Stuff happens to you in the world, then you’re on the wrong track and losing the capacity to shift yourself onto the right one. And yes, I know. My job went bad as a result of Digital Taylorism. Stuff happened to me too, doctor heal thyself and all that. It’s a fair cop, though in my defence I did do something about it in the end. I’m just sharing a little bit of insight from the other side 😉

The ermine – Renaissance symbol of nobility

‘Ermine’ – Peacham’s Emblem 75

The ermine was a mediaeval symbol of nobility, because it was believe it prized the purity of its white fur so highly it would face death rather than defilement. That’s agency too – agency is choosing your path. Because it is an archetypal symbol of agency, the whole story is larger than life, and Peachem was then to admonish the nobles to make like the noble Ermine and step up to the plate

Me thinkes even now, I see a number blush,
to heare a beast by nature should have care
to keepe his skinne, themselves not care a rush,
with how much filth their minds bespotted are
Great Lordes and Ladies, turn your cost and art
from bodies’ pride, t’enrich your better part

Choice isn’t just about what to buy next in the shops. It’s also about the things that matter in life. Believing you are a function about where you’ve ended up in life surrenders agency, because though you can’t alter how you got here, you can change where you’re going next. From that Guardian article, it seems to also affect how rich/poor you think you are.

One of the things that advertising and consumerism does to people seems to be it denies their agency – to become happier you need to buy this product etc. We have a stupendous quality of life compared to even the Britain I grew up into.

That article showed just how much it was to do with how much agency people felt they had as well as how much money. There were two people there with a lot more coming in than I’ve ever had who were seriously pissed off, because they felt they had no agency in their lives.



12 thoughts on “Agency – it’s what matters”

  1. Very true. You may have seen this:

    which is somewhat relevant.

    There is another side, though, and that is to accept that having agency does not mean full control. To be able to shrug off the shit that lands from time to time is a virtue.

    Even with agency, you may choose the path that wanders into the shit pool, and that is what the PR and MD have done. There was also a lot of unnaccounted for income there, so I suspect we don’t know the truth.


  2. As always with these articles since about 2005, I think it’s very difficult to read it without seeing their fate through the lens of housing.

    On the ladder = okay to rich.

    Renting = poor.

    The gulf is growing ever wider.

    (I appreciate this isn’t entirely on-topic to your point — but perhaps it is! They don’t feel fully able to engage their plans, because they can’t ‘put down roots’ or whatever other homily you might want to choose for buying instead of renting).


  3. @SG that BBC article was interesting. I’ve seen some of those guys. Indeed two of the +/- 5 year age cohort at work are no longer with us as a result of heart attacks, one a fit and keen walker.

    Fair enough on the agency downsides. It was the monetarily well off that felt poor who puzzled me.

    @Monevator – the Grauniad article doesn’t quite bear that out – as I read it, it seems to be having kids in conjunction with housing that is the problem. And a peculiarly British one – Europeans seem to be able to raise children in rented accommodation without angst.

    We make such a mess of housing in the UK. My grandmother never owned a house in Germany though she was well off, and it worked well for her. We’ve made a fetish of owning a house, where it doesn’t help at all early in your career (possible moving around) or late in life (maintenance, tying up capital, etc). It’s only really in midlife that it works well IMO, and we seem to have set up a situation where the alternative to ownership isn’t attractive, where people compare interest only mortgages to rent, which isn’t ownership in any real sense of the word, and generally a lose-lose situation all round. We don’t seem to have been at ease with housing since the 1980s. I’m not sure whether it was the council housing sales or the shorthold tenancy that started the rot.


  4. Thanks for the link, that was an interesting read. I had to laugh at the MD in the “forgotten middle” – 100-150k a year? Behave!
    A healthy dose of perspective is needed for some of those folks; I won’t claim to be any better, there are loads of things I’d like to have or do, but I hope I have learnt to recognise the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’.
    On a bit of a tangent, I read an opinion piece a while back that we should ask ourselves “am I content?” rather than “am I happy?” – it works for me whenever I’m a bit discontented (for example, about other people’s salaries!).
    Best regards,


  5. Wasn’t Dave wanting to measure how happy the Country was at some point? Does anyone know what happened to that? What criteria was he using I wonder? Did it didn’t include agency or self determination at all?


  6. @Guy other people’s salaries seem to be a great way to find discontent. There’s something to be said for turning ti down a notch and pitching for the am I content test, though. Mind you, the Guardianistas made me more content – i’ve never earned the PR’s income or the MD, and it would really hack me off if I did earn that and felt that pissed off with life!

    @Romany yes- and we’re happier with out lot that you’d think, apparently. It seems to be best to be a teenager or a pensioner, as well, which kind of point to work as being the happiness sink in people’s lives. Either that, or having children isn’t the unalloyed joy that it’s normally credited, because the happiness suckout seems to be the middle years…


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