Aaron Benanav

Harper-Schmidt Fellow
Collegiate Asst. Professor, Social Sciences
Affiliate Faculty, History Department
The University of Chicago

Drawing on histories of unemployment in Europe and the United States, and extending these analyses to the wider world, my research aims to produce a critical history of unemployment on the world-scale.

In particular, I focus on the history of governments’ efforts to categorize and control irregular, informal, and precarious forms of employment. I argue that the clarification of the distinction between employment and unemployment—through the eradication of irregular forms of work—was crucial to the postwar production of social and economic statistics, which in turn served as the foundation of that era’s worldwide full employment project. In the course of the 1960s, this project ran into trouble, first in the so-called “developing countries,” and then in the 1970s, in the “developed countries,” as well.

As unemployment levels rose, workers once again began to take jobs that were irregular in character (although typically different from the casual forms of work that were pervasive in earlier eras). The result was that governments faced a crisis that was at once economic and epistemological: they had trouble describing the forms of labor insufficiency that now proliferated. In response, labor statisticians developed a range of alternative categories, including ‘informal’ and ‘atypical’ work, which proved difficult to measure precisely.

Today, we live in a world where statistics such as unemployment and GPD growth continue to be reported regularly, with major consequences for the legitimacy of governments. However, in a world of widespread employment insecurity and rising economic inequality, these statistics no longer easily describe the overall health of the economy. In the course of my research, I also examine a range of alternative approaches to thinking about work and labor that arose in the midst of the crisis of the postwar full-employment framework.

My research is based on archival work at the ILO, the OECD, the World Bank, and the UN. I hope that my work will help reshape discussions around the history and future of work and labor, and around the production of economic statistics, by showing how the mid-20th century full-employment framework shaped and continues to shape our understanding of the world economy and its troubles.