Am I still worth it? Self-worth and worthiness in the age of Covid-19

“The most influential books are always those that are not read.”

– Michael Dunlop Young [1]

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.”

– John Maynard Keynes [2]


Self-worth and Worthiness are attributes we all understand but they have been undergoing much scrutiny as richer countries believe themselves to emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Millions of people got sick and died. Our long term care facilities had catastrophic experiences leading most of us to believe that, as a society, we do not sufficiently value the elderly.

Our jobs changed. Many of us lost them. Others lost their businesses. The better-off saved more. The poor were decimated.

And through it all, the poorest among us lived in Covid-19 hot spots – in whole nations and city neighbourhoods – and this seduced us to almost believe that an unthinking virus had the capacity to target people. Vaccines became available to those with resources. Recovery seemed to favour the rich and be denied to the less well off.

So what does this all mean for our ideas surrounding worthiness and self-worth?  Did the pandemic reinforce the idea that the rich are worthy and the poor are not? Did it tell us that self-worth should belong to the better off or that anyone can catch the virus and die from it?

One cannot say for certain how our ideas about worthiness will emerge post pandemic but it’s instructive to look at the past to see how philosophies of worthiness have evolved. We do know as Keynes said that some very powerful ideas will be both right and wrong.

We also know from Young that the authors of influential treatises will be often quoted but seldom read. Our purpose here is to show the evolution of the ideas behind worthiness and self -worth and to read the authors behind these ideas.

To accomplish this, we explore in reverse order, alternate ideas from just two years in the last century: 1973 and 1958. We then take a look at the last 2 years and what may have changed or have become better understood.


Jill Lepore’s recent piece in the New Yorker on the phenomenon of ‘Burnout’ points to the origin of the word in 1973 when coined by psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger.

She defines it in this way:

“To be burned out is to be used up, like a battery so depleted that it can’t be recharged. In people, unlike batteries, it is said to produce the defining symptoms of “burnout syndrome”: exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of efficacy.” 

Lepore relates the phenomenon to worthiness when she says:

In 1990, when the Princeton scholar Robert Fagles published a new English translation of the Iliad, he had Achilles tell Agamemnon that he doesn’t want people to think he’s “a worthless, burnt-out coward.” 

Burnout, she notes, is an affliction that relates to the age in which it is defined and understood:

“Every age has its signature afflictions,” the Korean-born, Berlin-based philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes in “The Burnout Society,” first published in German in 2010. Burnout, for Han, is depression and exhaustion, “the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity,” an “achievement society,” a yes-we-can world in which nothing is impossible, a world that requires people to strive to the point of self-destruction. “It reflects a humanity waging war on itself.”

Lepore then talks about how Burnout relates to the Covid-19 pandemic both in respect of its increase and its usage and how institutions reach their breaking point is synonymous with Burnout:

“Burnout is widely reported to have grown worse during the pandemic, according to splashy stories that have appeared on television and radio, up and down the Internet, and in most major newspapers and magazines, including Forbes, the Guardian, Nature, and the New Scientist.” 

“Burnout is a combat metaphor.  …. People across all walks of life—rich and poor, young and old, caretakers and the cared for, the faithful and the faithless—really are worn down, wiped out, threadbare, on edge, battered, and battle-scarred. Lockdowns, too, are features of war…”

In essence, our collective sense of worthiness takes a battering during a pandemic.

But it’s interesting to understand that in the same year when Burnout was coined, L’Oréal patented the catch phrase “I’m worth it”.   

So 1973, it seems, was one of those years when phrases were invented that last to this day.  In 1999, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece called “True Colors” also for the New Yorker –a story about the two women who revolutionized hair color treatment performed at home: Shirley Polykoff (Clairol) and Ilon Specht (L’Oréal). Specht penned the immortal ‘I’m worth it’ tagline that allowed L’Oréal to peddle a more expensive home hair color kit than Clairol’s ‘Nice and Easy’ called “Preference”.

Women were tiring of ads that made them think about evidence “Only your hairdresser knows for sure” or existential questions “If I have one life, let me live it as a blond”.

By 1973, women who colored their hair just wanted to know if they were OK. ‘I’m worth it’ is perhaps the easiest way to express personal worthiness.

 Gladwell talks about the woman who penned the ad and how she thought about it:

“Ilon Specht was working with L’Oréal, a French company that was trying to challenge Clairol’s dominance in the American hair-color market.

“I’m not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. I just thought, Fuck you. I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it.”

Specht sat stock still and lowered her voice:

“I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L’Oréal. It’s not that I care about money. It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not just the color. I expect great color. What’s worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending more for L’Oréal. Because I’m”—and here Specht took her fist and struck her chest— “worth it.”

Then Gladwell usefully explores the distinction between the philosophical and the physical, a distinction that John Kenneth Galbraith had made in his book “The Affluent Society”[3] 15 years earlier in 1958.

“This notion of household products as psychological furniture is, when you think about it, a radical idea. When we give an account of how we got to where we are, we’re inclined to credit the philosophical over the physical and the products of art over the products of commerce.”

Gladwell advances his case by quoting a L’Oréal executive:

“Carol Hamilton, L’Oréal’s vice-president of marketing, says she can walk into a hair-color focus group and instantly distinguish the Clairol users from the L’Oréal users.

“The L’Oréal user always exhibits a greater air of confidence, and she usually looks better—not just her hair color, but she always has spent a little more time putting on her makeup, styling her hair…  Her clothing is a little bit more fashion-forward. Absolutely, I can tell the difference.” 

 So there we have two sides of the ‘worthiness coin’ both tracing their pedigree to 1973. ‘Burnout’ and ‘I’m worth it’ are both household terms almost a half century later.

But each term denotes its opposite: Burnout asserts that worthiness is not for sale. I’m worth it tells us that it is. If you’re burned out, you are used up; if you’re worth it, you are full of potential. A Burnout is an innate failure. When you buy Preference by L’Oréal, you become a success. All are susceptible to Burnout but any woman can also buy worthiness by purchasing something as simple as a hair colouring kit.

Burnout lives in a pre-determined world, but you can buy freedom and be worth it. And perhaps most important, Burnout happens despite your best efforts but you can be worth it with no effort at all.

In some ways, these two 1973 inventions contrast production and consumption. We can replace the lack of worthiness caused by being unable to produce (Burnout) with retail therapy (consumption) that results in you being able to shout “I’m worth it”.


In some ways, the 1973 tension between the failure to produce and the worthiness of consumption was set in motion 15 years earlier when the seminal works of  two much revered men of letters produced important works that, like their 1973 counterparts, would also pass the test of time and be admitted into common parlance many decades later.

The two men are Michael Dunlop Young and John Kenneth Galbraith.

In 1958, Young published his famous sendup “The Rise of the Meritocracy” and Galbraith penned “The Affluent Society” in which he introduced a new phrase he called ‘The conventional wisdom’.

Young envisioned a world in which a new aristocracy rose to take the place of worthiness based on bloodlines with a ‘meritocracy’ based largely on access to elite education. He reviled both but became distressed by politicians who latterly praised his idea of a meritocracy as desirable.

For his part, Galbraith both defined and critiqued the conventional wisdom as the triumph of the acceptability of what he called the ‘myth of production’ as the dominant myth of our age. The idea of Burnout as a flag of surrender to the myth of production is much more comprehensible with the tableau created by Galbraith.

Similarly, Young’s sendup of a dominant and very well-off meritocratic class paves the way for the comprehensibility of an advertisement that sells worthiness on the basis of consumption.

Let’s look at what each author had to say starting with Young:

He says with some disdain:

“…a meritocracy could only exist in any full form if there was such a narrowing down of values that people could be put in rank order of worth.”

Then in a spoof he calls the Chelsea Manifesto in opposition to a meritocracy, he states:

“Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation, and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities of a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes superior to the lorry driver with unusual skill at growing roses?”  Chelsea Manifesto xvii

Young delves deeply into the history that makes meritocracy intelligible:

In the Agricultural world… status was not achievable by merit…people did not ask a boy what he was going to be when he grew up; they knew – he was going to work on the land like his ancestors before him. 12

He goes on to quote T.S. Eliot on the reason for the decline of any elite class:

“An elite if it is a governing elite , so long as the natural impulse to pass on to one’s offspring both power and prestige is not artificially checked, will tend to establish itself as a class…. But elite which thus transforms itself tends to lose its function as an elite, for the qualities by which the original members won their position will not all be transmitted equally to their descendants.”

T.S Eliot Notes towards the Definition of culture – 1943

The takeaway is that merit – and therefore worthiness – can be bought through the consumption of an elite education and the class status that it bestows upon the owner. The poor need not apply but watch out! It also won’t last forever

Galbraith for his part applies himself to the myth of production and how the conventional wisdom that supports it, relates to worthiness:

“Numerous factors contribute to the acceptability of ideas. To a very large extent, of course, we associate truth with convenience – We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem.” P 7

The hallmark of the conventional wisdom is acceptability… it serves the ego. The individual has the satisfaction of knowing that other and more famous people share his conclusions”.

Galbraith tacitly agrees with Young’s citation of T.S Eliot when he writes:

“The ultimate enemy of myth is circumstance.” 209

Young and Galbraith have similar sense of worthiness but each approaches it from different standpoints. For Young, any ‘tocracy’ is tyrannical; for Galbraith, convention is tyranny. Young asks the question: who gets to merit? While Galbraith asks: why does convention rule? Their ideas converge in their critique of unequal societies.

The convergent intellectual table that they unknowingly set   can be read as allowing the divergence in the foundations of worthiness 15 years later.


In March 2019, a news story noted a scam where some very well to do families gamed college entrance rules to gain entrance for their unqualified sons and daughters. But as Steven Mintz wrote two years later in his assessment of the scandal, the rules that only permit elites members into elite schools may be the real scandal:

“Then there’s Kinsley’s law: “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal. The scandal is what’s legal.”

The Varsity Blues scandal is a textbook example of Kinsley’s law at work. Outrage followed reports that wealthy families cheated to get their kids admitted into prestigious colleges and universities.

Bribery and fraud and falsified test scores and manipulating admission of athletes are not just disgraceful; they’re illegal. But a recent article in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan reveals the real travesty:

Although less than 2 percent of the nation’s students attend private schools, 24 percent of Yale’s Class of 2024, 25 percent of Princeton’s and 29 percent of Brown’s and Dartmouth’s did.

That the nation’s most prestigious and expensive prep schools sent extraordinary proportion of their students to the Ivy League: about a third of the students at Dalton and Spence. Harvard-Westlake sent 45 students to Harvard; Noble and Greenough, 50.

Of the 25 high schools that sent the most students to Princeton, just three were public schools in which at least 15 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

A student at Lawrenceville has nearly seven times the chance of getting into Princeton as a student from New York City’s top-ranked Stuyvesant High School.

Over half of the low-income Black students at elite colleges graduated from top-ranked private schools.”

Kinsley’s law perfectly illuminates Michael Dunlop Young’s pre-pandemic worst fears concerning the meritocracy while showcasing how easily worthiness can be bought and sold. After all, as the L’Oréal tagline is now restated: ‘You’re worth it’.


In 2021, we know that worthiness can come from production and consumption. We know that it can be produced and consumed. We also know that worthiness is based on ideas and we know that can be bought and sold.

Similarly, we understand that worthiness can be based on elements of conventional wisdom and mythologies that relate to both class and economics.

The year 2020 is the only year to ever earn the title of two popular adjectives: vision and hindsight.  Yet it became the year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Going in, we lived in a world that adhered to myths of wealth and a meritocracy; and our conventional wisdom surrounded the innate worthiness of those who were better off. Globalization supported this foundation.

But if Galbraith and T.S Eliot are right and the ultimate enemy of myth is circumstance, then the circumstances of the pandemic may finally disallow the myth of the worthiness attainable only through production and consumption.

The pandemic forces us to understand and realize that we can only help ourselves by assisting others and that strong governments that believe in this idea will prevail.

As Doug Saunders notes in his column of June 12, 2021:

“Because wealthy countries have decided to vaccinate themselves first, the resulting two-speed recovery has left a lot of people stuck.

Some are caught in their own countries, unable to leave for vital work; some, in the country where they sought work, are unable to send money home; and an astonishingly large number, estimated in the millions, are trapped in between.”

Saunders ends his column with these words:

“These millions fall into a dangerous categorical shadow: Not refugees, but not citizens, and so officially non-existent in many countries. They pose the greatest danger of spreading disease, yet might be the last to be vaccinated…” 

“Wealthy countries’ self-interested pursuit of a two-speed recovery has hampered the world’s economic recovery and provoked an explosion of dangerous new COVID-19 variants. We need to end the vaccination inequality between countries quickly – but it’s equally important to tend to the millions who don’t belong to any.”

Sue Halpern explores this same theme in her New Yorker article:

“There are two reasons that a person in London or Los Angeles should care about vaccination rates in Lagos or São Paulo: simple humanity and simple biology. If left unchecked, the loss of human life for families and societies worldwide will be staggering.”

So to answer the question: “Am I still worth it?” we are only still worth it when we come together to help ourselves by helping others. Self-worth and worthiness in the immediate post pandemic period will bring the point home: we are all our brother’s keepers if we want to survive.

I am looking forward to the sea change as long as it can last.

Js/June17, 2021

[1] Michael, Dunlop Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, London, Thames and Hudson, 1958; c.1994

[2] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936

[3] John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, New York, Houghlin Mifflin, c.1958