So there I was, at a party for my twentysomething daughter’s friends, and I fell into conversation with a chap called Ned. Ned is 26, works in the music business and is set to buy a two-bedroom flat in a not-terribly-smart district of south London. He told me his parents had generously stumped up for the deposit, that he was going to rent one bedroom to help pay the mortgage, so things were going ok. But, he shyly admitted, he was worried about being able to afford to install a security system. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he actually blushed and said, “But I realise that’s a First World Problem.”
Actually no, I said, that’s an anywhere-in-the-world problem. From the penthouse to the igloo, wherever humans have sought shelter and a semi-permanent residence, they’ve wanted to safeguard the entrance so as not to be attacked (or not to have to share it with others.) But the reason why Ned blushed at that moment was because he was afraid he might sound like a smug and moneyed landowner – in, say, a suburb of Johannesburg – shutting out the dodgy locals with electric fences and barbed wire.
Not half an hour later I was chatting to Jonathan, another mid-twenties, middle-class kid, with a degree and a severe case of what Anthony Powell called the mid-20s menopause, when you’re 26 and see 30 staring you in the face without having made your first novel/record/million and with no prospect of doing so. He had a job as a dogsbody with a production company, but wielded no actual power. His was the Clash Dilemma: should he stay at his well-paid job or strike out on his own as an independent? “Of course,” he said with a smile, “That’s rather a First World Problem…”
I don’t know where it came from, this hierarchy of World Problems, but it irritates me. It suggests that some topics are just not worthy of discussion, because they lack global importance or geopolitical significance. Don’t you dare express concern about ring-fencing your home against burglars, when you should be storing up all your concern for the fate of Syria. Don’t you dare wonder if your life in a media company is going nowhere, when your quota of conscience-pricking should be reserved for global warming.
Both my interlocutors at the party were pre-emptively telling themselves off for having “first-world problems.” Why? Because, like many others today, they’re tired of being accused of being privileged, elitist, smug, too white, too male, too bourgeois and all the other things that disempower you from having certain opinions, and de-legitimise your everyday concerns about how your life is going.
It’s a first cousin of that phrase “Check your privilege,” which warns people who express an opinion that they’re speaking from a position of moneyed or educated security and can’t possibly empathise with the victims of social problems. If you’re a man, the argument runs, you have no right to pontificate on the rise of female genital mutilation. If you’re an Old Etonian, you cannot possibly have a clue about the plight of benefit claimants.
Here, then, as part of the currency of modern speech, are the twin phrases about displaying “first world” airs and “privileged” thought processes. They sound to me like an Edwardian nanny telling her whingeing charges, “There’s plenty of people worse off than you in the world” and “Finish your lunch, there’s starving kids in Biafra who’d be glad to have it.” But the twin modern accusations aren’t directed at children. They are telling intelligent grown-ups, “Your problems count for nothing in the hierarchy of what’s serious,” and “Your opinions are worthless because of your birth, education or wealth.” That’s socially divisive in any community, and bloody rude in any world – first, second or third.