First world problems

March 22, 2015

first-world-problemsThe image is funny, in a twisted way, of course, but I want to talk about the concept of Haves and Have Nots.  And what First World really means.

I live in the First World.  Many of us do.

Should we apologize for it?

I ask, because I often see online commentary along those lines.  The idea that a First World problem is simply not a problem at all. And that first worlders shouldn’t complain about such things. And maybe should even atone for being First Worlders.

Now, of course, a chocolate chip cookie being too big for its glass of dunking milk is not really a problem at all.

But those of us who reside in the First World do have problems. They’re just not survival problems for most of us. And that is the difference.  But there’s something else:

Most of us have the definition of First World wrong: It’s really a term for the industrialized capitalist countries of western Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.  Or prosperous nations with relatively few poor people.

FirstWorldMap-2It doesn’t refer to a stratum of people at all. Did you know that? Because sometimes, First World is synonymous with “The Haves” –a different group than “The Have Nots.”

The nuance of the true definition–a group of industrialized nations — is lost.

Of course, ask a poor family in any big city in an industrialized country if they live in the First World and they’ll look at you as if you’re crazy.  It’s true– some First World issues can seem silly to those who don’t live there.  But  the world is a relative place.  Problems are relative things and prosperous nations (and people) have them.

People who make snarky comments about “First World Problems” are often really saying  that “The Haves” should apologize for “having.”   Here’s what strikes me: This is a very different social environment than those of our parents–who worked hard to “have.” Who strived to make a better life for their families.


Many people who live and work in industrialized nations have made their own way and have come to their financial stability honestly, by their own labor. It’s a fact.

I see many examples of this in the San Francisco Bay area, and not necessarily in the tech industry.  I’m talking about immigrants–many from from Third World countries — who have built financial security on chains of laundromats or have opened restaurants or dry cleaners. Those who have worked hard in service industries and succeeded. They’re everywhere in my area.

More often than you’d think, they are people who did not have advantages. Who came to this country without a job or even knowing the language. No education. Some weren’t young, either. Working hard and yes, boot-strapping, have allowed them to build financial security and live well.

Even while so many complain about “The Haves” and the economic divide in this country I look around and see among “The Haves” many of these immigrants who came from nothing –and worked hard to become something. If you look around, I’ll bet you’ll see the same.

This option –of working hard– is open to almost everyone. Some have to work harder than others to get there. But the door isn’t closed for as many as some would have us believe.

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7203372444_a2d140dff3What’s unique in our current world is the number of people starting over at midlife. They might have gotten in over their heads with a mortgage they couldn’t afford. Or been laid off.  These are situations that were less common in our parents’ generation. Maybe  a larger proportion of our generation are in that boat than we’d like to think.  By the time we hit 50, many people are ready to slow down just a little–the last thing most of us want to do is start something new and muster up all the energy necessary to succeed. But if circumstances have gotten away from us, what other choice do we have?

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All of this came up the other day in a discussion about the very high cost of living in the Bay area and how it is unaffordable for many.

“Then they should move somewhere that’s more affordable,” a friend said. “That’s a no-brainer.”

“But think about how hard it would be to start anew in an unfamiliar city or state, where they knew no one,” someone else said.

Tell that to my Vietnamese dry cleaner who has built a great life for his family on the other side of the world. Or the immigrant owner of a successful restaurant we visit who came to this country without speaking English.

Tell that to my grandparents, who also traveled thousands of miles to a new place where they knew no one and didn’t speak the language.  Whether they needed to find a new hunting ground or just higher ground, people have been moving to make better lives for their families since time immemorial.

That’s a fact.  It’s a sacrifice, but one they made in recognition of the bigger picture.

When I look at what immigrants have been doing in the US for more than 100 years it’s clear that moving from an expensive location to Florida or Tennessee or even upstate New York is hardly the same thing.  Forbes magazine does an annual list of the most affordable cities, and there are some fairly sizable ones that offer a good quality of life, too.  Living in any of these places would not be hard duty for most of us and would appeal to many:

A few of Forbes' most affordable U.S. cities. Not hard duty.

A few of Forbes’ most affordable U.S. cities. Not hard duty.

Given that many other communities offer a higher quality of life at a lower cost, why would anyone struggle to live in the Bay area, where the median house price tops $500,000?  MEDIAN.

Here’s a word that comes up a lot: entitlement.


I want what I want.

I don’t know why it surprises me that we live in a world where so many feel entitled:

Kids feel entitled to the latest $100+ sneakers or $85 brand-name slippers. Or expensive Ipads. And many parents buy them. What if most parents didn’t capitulate? How would the environment we live in change?

College grads feel entitled to move back in with their parents, something I would have avoided at any cost. What if parents charged room and board of some sort as a maturing lesson?

Renters feel entitled to home ownership. So banks made that possible and then the whole thing collapsed, at which time homeowners wanted a bailout. Because banks got one.

Some–not all– jobless feel entitled to not just the security blanket of unemployment pay but a free ride for years. I know some personally who feel that way here in California. It’s not just s short-term security blanket for them, but a way of life. A paid vacation. Not kidding.

Those who can’t afford health insurance with broad coverage think they should get it anyway. The idea that Obamacare is nothing but private insurance and just like any private insurance,  you get what you pay for has been lost.

I could go on–we have become  a nation of the entitled—and from my perspective it has a lot to do with the Have Nots wanting a short cut to becoming one of The Haves.

A shortcut my immigrant family didn’t get or even expect.

A shortcut my dry cleaner and restauranteur didn’t get.

It’s true that there is a yawing gap between The Have and The Have Nots, today, maybe a gap that’s bigger than it’s ever been.   From my seat it looks like a multi-faceted problem, involving the materialism and entitlement of our culture, a dumbing down of facts into sound bites, that financial institutions have approved loans that made no financial sense, and yes, bad decisions made by some of us.

This jumble of somewhat related thoughts are always going around in my head like clothes in a dryer, and I’m wondering if any of this makes sense.  What do you think?

9 comments on “First world problems
  1. I’m with you completely. People think they’re ‘entitled’ to something, which of course, they’re not. I didn’t realize what first world meant–just thought it referred to an industrialized civilization. Thanks for that map which makes the point clear.
    On a personal level, I moved from the home of my birth in Australia to England when my marriage split up and my husband was out of control. I knew nobody, and all I could fall back on was to work as a nanny, which you could do back in the 80s without qualifications. I worked hard, always have until recently when age and disability prevented it.

    • Yes, I think there are so many of us who have worked hard to make a better life. The truth is my best lessons came from being forced to struggle on my own and make my own path. I was surprised at the definition of First World, too. It’s not used correctly, so of course we don’t understand it. Thanks, Francene, for adding to the topic.

  2. J.Q. Rose says:

    You put into an actual post what many people, including me, feel/think, but don’t actually write about it. Giving you a standing O for telling it like it is. In our small town, we have families who are three generations of folks on public assistance.That makes no sense to me.I can only explain it with the realization of each generation has no role model to learn how to get out of it. It’s their way of life.

  3. More…too many of us want more…of everything…for less…of everything…

    Too many of us are losing sight of the value and measure of hard work and we are fostering generations of Entitled Beings. We teach complacency through acts of social promotion; we breed expectation when we give medals/rewards to everyone, an effort to spare hurt feelings. Too many of us fail to be responsible to our grown children by helping them be independent because we are so busy being responsible for them. We set those examples when we allow our children to come and go from our home at every whim or discomfort…

    We’re of the came choir, Carol…some of the greatest shortcuts in life are those of hard work, commitment, resourcefulness, perseverance, independence…

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece… <3

  4. Donna says:

    the last few years I have watched our financial life explode. Yet, no unemployment insurance for us. We reinvented ourselves and kept going. We have done the scariest thing, start a business. And we work so hard, physically hard work, and we are in debt everywhere…..and we still pay taxes. I want to scream into a pillow when entitlements continue to grow, but folks like me endure more regulations, more roadblocks….it’s like the government doesn’t want anyone to succeed. I pay and pay and pay….

  5. A sense of entitlement definitely seems to have permeated society, and I can’t imagine why. This country was built on a strong work ethic that is getting harder and harder to find. When did everyone start thinking they were owed something?

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