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A Global History of Unemployment: The Search for Global Full Employment, 1940-1990

Dec 01, 2021 — Dec 01, 2022

The research project examines the history of the origins, development, and international standardization of the unemployment rate.

The International Labor Organization (2021) estimates that 8.8 percent of global working hours were lost in 2020, relative to 2019, due to both corona lockdowns and other reverberations stemming from the corona crisis. That figure represents a massive loss of work: it is equivalent to 255 million full time jobs, assuming a global 48-hour working week.

However, one would have missed the extent of the crisis had one only looked at the global unemployment rate: the latter rose just 1.1 percent between 2019 and 2020, from 5.4 to 6.5 percent (ibid.). Many people who lose their work are not included in the unemployment rate, either because they continue to work a few hours each week, or because, having lost their jobs, they fail to engage in an active job search. At the global level, many workers are self-employed and hence excluded from unemployment statistics by definition. Despite these inadequacies, the unemployment remains the single most important indicator for measuring labor market health. Next to the GDP growth rate, the unemployment rate is the single most politically important economic indicator.

The research project examines the history of the origins, development, and international standardization of the unemployment rate. Under what conditions and to what extent did countries actually produce and disseminate unemployment rates? How should we understand the persistence of the unemployment rate, as a key indicator, despite the criticisms it has received? What alternative measures have been proposed, and why did they fail to achieve hegemony?

Given its centrality to the legitimacy of liberal polities, it is perhaps surprising to learn that the unemployment rate was not constructed until 1940, and was not widely available across the world until the 1970s. The working thesis is that the spread of this economic indicator around the world coincided with the promotion of a new liberal internationalist political project, born of the experience of depression and war.

The global full employment project was expected to reinvigorate liberal societies, steering them between socialist revolution and fascist counter-revolution. This project was implemented, moreover, not only in the West, but also throughout the non-Western world, as the end and aim of programs of economic and social development. “Full employment” clauses were inserted into the charters of the United Nations (UN), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC/OECD), and were simultaneously integrated into the constitutions of many newly independent states after WWII. Whereas other studies of the history of unemployment focus on the various ways this concept was conceived across countries such as the US, UK, France, and Germany before WWII, this research project focuses on postwar efforts to standardize statistical constructions. It examines the obstacles encountered in the course of that undertaking.

From this perspective, it is shown that the full-employment framework entered into crisis earlier than is typically supposed. Rising unemployment levels were already proving difficult to resolve in countries such as Brazil, Kenya, and India in the early 1960s. Simultaneously, efforts to measure and publicize the extent of unemployment in these countries were undermined from a surprising direction: new forms of casual and irregular work were becoming ubiquitous in urban areas and were proving difficult to measure with existing labor force categories. The project explores the emergence and evolution of global conversations about the limits of unemployment statistics, which quickly developed into conversations about the limits of full employment as a political project.

Critiques of full employment emerged from a variety of post-Keynesian, socialist, post-colonial and neoliberal perspectives, but only the latter are widely discussed today. In the course of this research project, it is planned to examine how and why, in the 1970s and 80s, international efforts to save the global full-employment framework were defeated as one after another government began to encourage workers to take the sorts of precarious jobs that statisticians were struggling to measure. The research project intervenes into literatures on economic development and statistics-making to show how measures of the unemployment rate diffused across the world and why those measures serve as obstacles to understanding problems of job insecurity and economic inequality today.


Aaron Benanav (2019). “The Origins of Informality: The ILO at the Limit of the Concept of Unemployment,” Journal of Global History 14, 1 (February 2019), pp. 107-125.

Aaron Benanav (2020). “Service Work in the Pandemic Economy,” International Labor and Working Class History, FirstView online, October 12, 2020.

ILO, “ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Seventh edition,” January 25, 2021. Accessed at https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_767028.pdf