RIP First World Problems
By Skye Davey
Deputy Communications Director
When the phrase "First World Problems"* peaked back in 2011 (apparently entries in the Urban Dictionary date back to 2005), I didn’t think twice about it. What’s the harm in recognising just how good some of us have it, right?
But after reading author Teju Cole’s take on First World Problems I started to see it in a very different light. First World Problems is a bit of an internet relic in 2017, but the kind of thinking that fuelled its popularity lingers on and it’s worth taking a look at.
What’s the problem?
Thanks to popular media representations of the so-called “third world” - and the relative rarity of empowering or complex portrayals - billions of diverse peoples are regularly and wrongfully stereotyped as hopeless, helpless and utterly miserable. And while few of it’s users (me included) intended to, "First World Problems" played a role in that.
Check out Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s brilliant series of tweets on First World Problems here.
"First World Problems" is condescending.
The concept is based on the assumption that “third world” peoples live in such misery (faced with exclusively “third world” problems like natural disasters, poverty, starvation, war and death), that they couldn’t possibly care about the kind of petty annoyances we label "first world problems".
But the truth is that people all over the world - from Nigeria to North Melbourne - complain when their phones freeze, when they’re sitting in traffic or when they’ve left their laptop charger in the next room. Because they’re human, not saintly.
Sure - low-income countries face some pretty tough issues, but "First World Problems" perpetuates the myth that these places are literal hell-holes. How would you like it if other people imagined your home as their go-to symbol of suffering?
"First World Problems" ignores the fact that wealthy countries face a laundry list of challenges too.
In Australia, homelessness is growing rapidly, we’re facing a national crisis of Indigenous imprisonment, an epidemic of domestic violence, and have a government that thinks it’s a-ok to keep innocent people indefinitely locked up on Nauru and Manus island.
That matters because the kind of thinking behind "First World Problems" - that “we” have it all worked out, and “they” can’t keep their heads above water - undermines the struggles of these people, and can even breed a false sense of superiority.
"First World Problems" is lazy.
We used it to show others we weren’t wrapped up in our own petty problems - and to make fun of people who were - but it was never insightful or constructive. We could have been donating, volunteering, or starting important conversations about our privilege. Instead we made condescending jokes.
On it’s own, "First World Problems" is a tiny slice of our language, but it’s also part of a much larger culture of harmful attitudes and beliefs about the “third world”.
While it’s good to keep some perspective on our worries, the thinking behind First World Problems obscures an obvious and important truth: we’re far more similar than we might think.
Teju Cole says it well:
*Did you know? The terms “first world” and “third world” are not only inaccurate, they are also ridiculously outdated. The terms hark back to the Cold War when the world was divided into communist and capitalist camps. They imply a world hierarchy which places low-income countries squarely at the bottom.