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A relic of the past

RIP first world problems

"First world problems" is dropped regularly in the comment sections of Facebook - a nifty rebuke deployed daily against entitled millennials and bleeding heart lefties.

As a teenager I harboured humanitarian aspirations and wasn't shy about slinging "first world problems" at anyone and everyone. But that changed when I stumbled upon Nigerian-American author Teju Cole's brilliant series of tweets.

The following is a reflection on the ever-problematic phrase.

What’s the problem?

Thanks to popular media representations of the so-called “third world” - and the relative rarity of empowering and nuanced portrayals - billions of diverse peoples are regularly stereotyped as hopeless, helpless and utterly miserable. 

Its condescending.

Here's the thing: people everywhere love to whine about gridlocked traffic, tangled earphones and iPhone batteries, whether we live in Nigeria or North Melbourne. Because we're human, not saintly.

Okay, sure. Low-income countries face some frankly frightening challenges. But "first world problems" perpetuates the myth that the "third world" is a veritable hell-hole.

How would you like it if other people imagined your home as their go-to symbol of suffering?


It's one-sided.

Homelessness is growing rapidly in Australia. We’re facing a national crisis of Indigenous imprisonment and an epidemic of domestic violence. And we've got a government that reckons it's a-okay to lock up innocents in prison camps on Nauru and Manus island.

"First world problems" thinking overlooks these struggles.

It's lazy and outdated.

Shouting "first world problems" has never been insightful or even constructive. It's not a substitute for donating, volunteering, or starting a conversation about privilege.

The term "first world" itself is a relic of the past - a term harking back to the Cold War, when the world was divided into communist and capitalist camps. "First world" implies a world hierarchy which places low-income countries squarely at the bottom. 

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”.

The thinking behind "first world problems" obscures an obvious truth: we’re far more similar than we might think.

Teju Cole says it well:


"First world problems" has long out-stayed its welcome. It's time we buried it once and for all.