Taking action on “first world problem” guilt

Yesterday I listened to one of my favourite Australian podcasts (Straight and Curly, ep 61) on my walk home from work. These ladies are a little piece of home and normality in what can sometimes feel like a quite foreign life from the norm. I used to listen to them on the bus commuting from my townhouse to work in Canberra, and now I am listening to them on the not uneventful walks I sometimes take home (shout-out to my life penguin* who often takes a pooped sweaty Renee home). Like a number of my favourite podcasts, its comforting to be included in what seems to be a great conversation between friends.


They were talking about dealing with an existential crisis, and that it was a luxury to have choice, to be in such a fortunate position as to both strive and to achieve your goals. I was listening to this, as I walked home pot-holey streets, with dogs of various health and viciousness eye-balling me, with rusty cars and kids playing in yards with toys that would have been long discarded back home. Chickens clucked and pigs snorted in the bushes.

As Carly reflected (and I’m hoping I get this sentiment right), there is always a place to check your immense privilege in thinking about the luxury of feeling like you’ve “ticked all the boxes”. Being in a position to think, wow I’ve got it sorted, means that your basic needs are filled and you’ve been able to achieve something freely without too much interference from poverty, structural** or actual violence. Of course this is right. Things are much harder when there are practical or systemic barriers in your way.  Being reflective in setting and going about the achievement of your goals, in the sense of where you can draw strength from, and being grateful is a part of being a decent, humble and not assholey individual.

As I reflected on the conversation, it made me think of the somewhat overused phrase first world problems. Its an attractive concept, because it both allows the sayer to suggest they know that they are relatively privileged on a global scale but doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to do anything about this inequality.

I guess my main issue with using the term without any action attached is that it both separates people into types, and reduces the possibility of developing deeper connections with others whose journeys are different. Think about this:

“Oh I know complaining about not having the latest iPhone is a first world problem, but I really want it”

“Oh I really want a new iPhone, but I’m really concerned with the treatment of labourers in the factories and effect of marketing on overconsumption”

The first, recognises that there are perhaps other more significant problems in the world, but the individual still comes first, and that no further thought really has to go into it. The second thinks more deeply about what the problem is. If we use the term as a way to reflect on our relative privilege and then as a stepping stone to taking action to countering inequality of experience and opportunity, we have the chance to take action, be involved and be part of change for good (however you want to do that).

What I’ve learnt in living and travelling abroad, is that people are more similar than they are different, and using phrases carelessly like first world problems discounts the commonality of the human condition. It creates division, dehumanising the real people that are experiencing a tougher time than you. It doesn’t recognise the strengths of these individuals and communities in creating opportunities for themselves in the face of having not much. First world problems, aren’t just problems in the first world often. People struggle with having a phone dying (read this on the rise of the mobile phone in the developing world if you don’t believe me), their credit run out, the milk going sour, not getting their favourite food or drink (though it might not be a latte, might be any of these top 50, also check out the grocery hauls ). People have awful bosses, silly pets, are clumsy, put their foot in their mouth or stay up late worrying how they are going to pay the bills. The way this looks might be different where you live to where someone else lives but the desire to have a good life, surrounded by love, connected with others, with a roof over your head and some food to eat is universal. Making connections with others on your similarities rather than on your differences leads to a more fulfilled life.



*Penguin – they thrive on land and on the sea, used here to denote people who can help people living/working overseas understand the cultural context that they have arrived in by being able to dip in and out of both contexts. e.g. the ability to explain something that is new and foreign to the newcomer in ways that make some sense in the newcomers language and cultural context.

**Structural violence – a term attributed to academic Galtung, which encompasses the systematic structures that harm or disadvantage people by preventing them to thrive and meet basic needs. It normally includes systemic or instititionalised ageism, classism, sexism, ableism,elitism, nationalism etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s