The Problem With Saying "First World Problems"

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Over the past couple years, a new meme or slang phrase has entered our lexicon: "first world problem." It has now reached the tipping point of ubiquity where even your typically uncool friends have picked up on it and started saying it, despite the fact that those "in the know" have been throwing it around for some time.

In case you haven't had the chance to hear it, and are bad at context clues, it means that the speaker is experiencing something that only folks in wealthier countries have to "deal with." One example might be: "My nanny called in sick today and I have to drive the kids to school. I know, first world problems." Or try this on for size: "My parents will only pay for an in-state school, but I really want to go to Vandy. First world problem!" Even something mundane: "This Moscow Mule tastes terrible; the bartender is an idiot. First world problems. Ugh."

This is not the smartest thing to say on a number of levels. First, it's anachronistic. The "first world" refers to how people categorized or "divided up" the world in the Soviet-era cum Cold War Era. The "first world" was the United States and its allies in NATO, the "second world" was the Soviet Union, its satellite states and allies, while the "third world" included those countries particularly in Africa and South America which were not aligned with either the U.S.S.R or NATO etc. and tended to be poor.

You might remember, presuming you are old enough, that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Historians, political economists and other people who actually think about these things now call "third-world" countries by a variety of names, but of particular use is Lesser-Developed Countries (LDCs). To invoke another over-used meme: 1989 called, it wants its terminology back.

So not only do you sound ridiculous on an intellectual level by saying "first world problem," you also sound a bit morally backward. Although at first blush, the speaker is allegedly trying to minimize and recognize that this is a problem only confronted by those who are economically comfortable, by even giving voice to the problem in such a manner, and comparing it with the problems confronted by persons in truly poor countries -- lack of food and clean drinking water, inadequate health care, HIV, authoritarian governmental regimes, genocide and ethnic cleansing & c. -- the speaker is essentially saying thankfully I, me, am lucky enough to deal only with the minor inconveniences of a wealthy society.

One wonders if the speaker who tosses off the phrase "first-world problem" -- almost with a bit of glee in their voice at their luck of birth circumstance -- has even given much thought to the actual issues outlined above. My guess: probably not.

Do you want to make the world a better place? Stop saying "first world problems."

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