Backstory - Looking for Work: A History of Unemployment

This Labor Day, Americans will commemorate the legendary gumption of the American worker by taking some much-deserved time off from work. Americans, that is, who are lucky enough to still have a job.

For many millions of Americans, Labor Day will be just another day on the dole. The national unemployment rate has been at more than nine percent for two years now -- something that hasn't happened since the Great Depression.

On this episode of BackStory, the History Guys take on the history of joblessness, and explore what it meant for previous generations of Americans. As they discover, the very concept of "unemployment" is a relatively modern one; the word itself didn’t appear in a government document until the 1880s. So how has the changing nature of employment shaped the experience of not having a job? Have the moral connotations of work evolved? Are people more or less attached to their professions than they used to be? What has it meant for American workers that there are always new immigrants – or poor migrants – who are willing to work for less? What is the connection between war and unemployment? These are some of the questions on the table as the History Guys delve into the experience of looking for work through three centuries of American life.

BackStory is a hour-long show in which renowned U.S. historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths. Over the course of each episode, the historian-hosts are joined by people in the news, callers, and fellow scholars interested in exploring the roots of contemporary America. Together, they reveal the connections -- and disconnections -- between past and present. With its passionate, intelligent, and irreverent approach, BackStory is essential listening for a broad range of audiences.

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