Events on History and Future of Unemployment with Historian Aaron Benanav

The Center for Liberal Arts is pleased to announce the campus visit of historian Aaron Benanav, (University of Chicago), who will discuss his research on the global history of unemployment in a student seminar and a public lecture. Interested students will have the opportunity to participate in the seminar on “Unemployment, automation, and the future of work” and are kindly asked to prepare by reading two brief texts (to be downloaded here: Text 1, Text 2). The lecture, “Adventures of an Economic Concept: Unemployment on a World Scale,” is open to all students, faculty, and staff.

For both events, please RSVP ( For further information, please see below.

Student Seminar: “Unemployment, automation, and the future of work”

March 22, 2019. 15:30-17:00. Room 2.14

We are living through a time of immense technological and social changes—an era of artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, machine learning, and self-driving cars. According to some observers, these developments will soon substantially reduce the need for labor across large areas of the economy. How might we understand the meaning of our lives when work is no longer central to social life? Surprisingly, this is not the first time scholars have asked these questions. For this student workshop, we will discuss two texts from 1930 concerned with similar questions about unemployment and the meaning of work.

The first, “Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren,” was written by 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes at a time when unemployment levels were extremely high in England. In response, Keynes tried to imagine a time, two generations in the future, when the economic problems of his era would have been be solved and people would work just 15 hours a week. Keynes tries to imagine what people would do with all of their additional leisure time.

The second, Marienthal: The Sociography of an Unemployed Community, was written by a team of sociologists led by husband and wife duo Paul Lazardsfeld and Marie Jahoda, and based on a study conducted in an industrial village in Austria. It examines the experiences of unemployed people in the Great Depression, especially their experience of time.

We will discuss issues of technological unemployment, forced and free leisure time, unemployment insurance, basic income schemes, the place of work in social life, and whether we can imagine a future of significantly reduced working time.

Lecture: “Adventures of an Economic Concept: Unemployment on a World Scale”

March 25, 2019. 16:00-17:30. Room 0.16

This lecture begins with a paradox: the higher unemployment rates climb, the harder they are to measure. From the 1970s onwards, as unemployment rates rose to upwards of 10 percent across much of Western Europe, economists and statisticians were forced to confront the limits of their own statistical categories. Increasingly, published measures of unemployment were supplemented by a variety of other measures of so-called non-standard work. I elucidate this statistical paradox by looking at an earlier moment when such categorial limits were revealed. In the 1950s and 60s, European economists working at the United Nations tried to adapt their concept of unemployment for use in so-called developing countries, at a time when unemployment was rising quickly across the world but proving difficult to measure. Facing up to their evident statistical failures, these economists were forced to confront much broader questions of the social and historical specificity of their economic concepts. What is unemployment, after all? Why do we measure it? What social imaginaries does this measure sustain or, alternately, require?


Aaron Benanav

Aaron Benanav is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow and Collegiate Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the global history of unemployment and government efforts to categorize and control irregular, informal and precarious forms of work. He is currently completing two book projects: the first on surplus populations in the world economy; the second on the history of international efforts to measure underemployment and non-standard work. Prior to his appointment in Chicago, Aaron Benanav received his MA (2008) and PhD (2015) in History from University of California, Los Angeles. His work has appeared in South Atlantic Quarterly, New Left Review and articles will soon be forthcoming from Journal of Global History and Social Science History.