Labour History

Unemployment in a Time of Full Employment: Counting and Regulating Worklessness in Mid-Twentieth Century Australia

Labour History (2015), 108, (1), 71–88.


The post-war period saw the consolidation of new understandings of unemployment in Australia. This is evident both in statistical definitions of unemployment and in the social security provision of unemployment benefit during this period. Both represented a significant break from pre-war concepts and practices. This article suggests that the emergence of these new understandings, at least in part, was linked to a changing labour market. The article goes on to consider the extent to which the post-war binary divide between “employment” and “unemployment” adequately captured the labour market experience of two groups: married women and remote-area Indigenous workers.

Access Token
If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here


*The author would like to thankLabour History‘s two anonymous referees. Google Scholar

1.Jill Roe, “Perspectives on the Present Day: A Postscript,”inSocial Policy in Australia: Some Perspectives 1901–1975, ed.Jill Roe(:Cassell Australia, 1976), 314. Google Scholar

2.T. H. Kewley, Social Security in Australia 1900–72(:Sydney University Press, 1973), 281. Google Scholar

3.Terry Carney, Social Security Law and Policy(:Federation Press, 2006), 33. Google Scholar

4.Noel Whiteside, Bad Times: Unemployment in British Social and Political History(:Faber, 1991), 133. Google Scholar

5.See, for example,William Walters, Unemployment and Government: Genealogies of the Social(:Cambridge University Press, 2000);R. Salais,N. Baverez, andB. Reynaud, L’Invention du Chômage: Histoire et Transformations d’une Catégorie en France des Années 1890 aux Annés 1980(:Presses Universitaires de France, 1986);Phinneas Baxandall, Constructing Unemployment: The Politics of Joblessness in East and West(:Ashgate, 2004);Anthony O’Donnell, “Inventing Unemployment: Labour Market Regulation and the Establishment of the Commonwealth Employment Service,” Federal Law Review 31(2003):342–72. Google Scholar

6.Bruce Curtis, The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics and the Census of Canada, 1840–1875(:University of Toronto Press, 2001), 308. Google Scholar

7.Curtis, The Politics of Population, 309, citingRaymond Williams, The Country and the City. Google Scholar

8.Curtis, The Politics of Population, 309. Google Scholar

9. Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 30th June 1947: Statistician’s Report(:Commonwealth Government Printer, 1952), 179(hereafterCensus Statistician’s Report). Google Scholar

10.Desley Deacon, “Political Arithmetic: The Nineteenth Century Australian Census and the Construction of the Dependent Woman,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11(1985):29. Google Scholar

11.Tony Endres andMalcolm Cook, “Concepts in Australian Unemployment Statistics to 1940,” Australian Economic Papers 22(1983):72. Google Scholar

12.Ibid., 70. Google Scholar

13.F. Di Giorgio andA. Endres, “The Changing Fortunes of CES Unemployment Statistics,” The Australian Quarterly 55(1983):313;Judith Innes, Knowledge and Public Policy: The Search for Meaningful Indicators, 2nd ed. (:Transaction Publishers, 1990), 128–29. Google Scholar

14.Gertrude Bancroft, The American Labor Force: Its Growth and Changing Composition(:John Wiley and Sons, 1958), 186. Google Scholar

15.Keith Hancock, et al., Report of the Advisory Committee on Commonwealth Employment Service Statistics(:Australian Government Publishing Service, 1973), para. 2.2. Google Scholar

16.Bancroft, The American Labor Force, 187. Google Scholar

17.The exclusion of registration at private agencies most likely reflected both a widely held view that such agencies were not legitimate labour market actors (indicated by a long antipathy toward them by bodies such as the International Labour Organisation) and their declining importance in placement of workers in the post-war period; seeAnthony O’Donnell andRichard Mitchell, “The Regulation of Public and Private Employment Agencies in Australia: A Historical Perspective,” Comparative Labor Law and Policy Journal 23(2001):7–43. Although trade unions remained important channels of recruitment in many occupations well into the post-war period (seeRichard Mitchell, “Union Security and the ‘Hiring Hall’: A Note on the Sanctioning of Union Labour Supply Arrangements in Australian Labour Law,” Australian Journal of Labour Law 16(2003):343–58), they only referred registered workers to work “in the trade,” and so registration with a trade union curtailed the search for “work” more generally. Google Scholar

18.Bancroft, The American Labor Force, 192–93. Google Scholar

19.J. Steinke, “Some Problems in the Measurement of Unemployment,” Journal of Industrial Relations 11(1969):42. Google Scholar

20. Census Statistician’s Report1947, 179. Google Scholar

21.Ibid., 237. Google Scholar

22. Census Statistician’s Report 1954, 196;Census Statistician’s Report1961, 244. Google Scholar

23. Census Statistician’s Report1954, 197. Google Scholar

24.The Reports admitted that the category of “not at work” did not “represent the number of unemployed available for work and unable to obtain it”:Ibid., 221;Census Statistician’s Report1961, 292. Google Scholar

26.“The net effect of this new definition … [was] a proportionate increase in the Australian workforce of approximately 2.3 per cent. The major factor in this change was females working part-time (sometimes only a few hours a week) some of whom in1961, did not consider themselves as ‘engaged in an industry, business, profession, trade or service’”:Census of Population and Housing, 30 June 1966, vol. 1, part 8 (:Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, 1969–73), 7. Google Scholar

27. Census Statistician’s Report1947, 179. Google Scholar

28.SeeWerner Sengenberger, Beyond the Measurement of Unemployment and Underemployment: The Case for Extending and Amending Labour Market Statistics(:International Labour Organisation, 2011). Google Scholar

29. Employment, Unemployment and Labour Force Statistics: A Study of Methods, ILO Studies and Reports, new series, no. 7, part 1 (:ILO, 1948);The Sixth International Conference of Labour Statisticians, Montreal, 4–12 August 1947,ILO, Studies and Reports, new series, no. 7, part 4 (:ILO, 1948). Google Scholar

30.David Card, “Origins of the Unemployment Rate: The Lasting Legacy of Measurement without Theory”(paper prepared for the meeting of the American Economic Association, Denver, Colorado, 6–9 January2011), 6, accessed March 2015, Google Scholar

31.Alain Desrosieres, The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning(:Harvard University Press, 1998), 202. See alsoStanley Moses, “Labour Supply Concepts: The Political Economy of Conceptual Change,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, no. 418(1975):26–44. Google Scholar

32.Baxandall, Constructing Unemployment, 81. Google Scholar

33.Bancroft, The American Labor Force, 185; see alsoInnes, Knowledge and Public Policy, 129, 186. Google Scholar

34.Jenny Lee andCharles Fahey, “A Boom for Whom? Some Developments in the Australian Labour Market, 1870–1891,” Labour History, no. 50(May1986):1–27;Charles Fahey, “Unskilled Male Labour and the Beginnings of Labour Market Regulation, Victoria 1901–1914,” Australian Historical Studies 33(2002):119, 143–60;O’Donnell, “Inventing Unemployment,” 346–50;Iain Campbell, “An Historical Perspective on Insecure Work in Australia,” Queensland Journal of Labour History 16(2013):424. Google Scholar

35.O’Donnell, “Inventing Unemployment.” Google Scholar

36.Christopher Wright, The Management of Labour: A History of Australian Employers(:Oxford University Press, 1996). TheBulletin of Industrial Practice and Personnel Management, issued by the Department of Labour and National Service, carried over a dozen articles focussing on the problems of high labour turnover in the six years from 1945. Google Scholar

37.Wright, The Management of Labour, 50–65. Google Scholar

38.Malcolm Mansfield, “Blind Spots and Awkward Corners: ‘Precarisation’ through the Perspective of Unemployment Construction”(paper prepared for the 11th biennial French Sociology of Work Conference,London Metropolitan University, 20–22 June2007);Robert Salais, “Labour Conventions, Economic Fluctuations and Flexibility,”inPathways to Industrialization and Regional Development, ed.M. Storper andA. Scott(:Routledge, 1992). Google Scholar

39.For example, Jordan concludes that the function or objective of the work test was to distinguish the person “who is a current although unemployed member of the labour force from the person who, although jobless, is not”:Alan Jordan, Work Test Failure: A Sample Survey of Terminations of Unemployment Benefit(:Department of Social Security, 1981), 6–7. Google Scholar

40.Rob Watts, The Foundations of the National Welfare State(:Allen and Unwin, 1987);John Murphy, A Decent Provision: Australia Welfare Policy, 1870 to 1949(:Ashgate, 2011). Google Scholar

41.Noel Whiteside andJames Gillespie, “Deconstructing Unemployment: Developments in Britain in the Interwar Years,” Economic History Review 44(1991):674. Google Scholar

42.Birgitte Studer, “Social Policy as Gender Technology: The Social Construction of ‘the Unemployed’ in Switzerland in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,”(paper prepared for the 5th European Social Science History Conference, Berlin, 24–27 March2004). Google Scholar

43.See, for example, the discussion inClarence Long, “The Concept of Unemployment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 57(1942):2–5. Google Scholar

44. Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Act 1944(Comonwealth) s. 15(c)(i). On the early operation of this policy regarding industrial action, seeO’Donnell, “Inventing Unemployment,” 366–69. Google Scholar

45.See, for instance,P. N. Ebbels, ed, The Australian Labour Movement, 1850–1907: Extracts From Contemporary Documents(:Australasian Book Society, 1976), 76–82. Google Scholar

46.Male claimants less than 19 years of age, female claimants less than 21, claimants residing with dependent children, claimants residing with a pregnant wife or claimants who were themselves pregnant were able to refuse employment which would involve living away from home: Commonwealth Employment Service, District Office Manual, January1949, Series MP 243/2, National Archives of Australia. Google Scholar

47.Ibid. Google Scholar

48.Steinke, “Some Problems”;Hancock, Report of the Advisory Committee;Peter Sheehan andPeter Stricker, “The Collapse of Full Employment 1974 to 1978,”inPublic Expenditure and Social Policy in Australia, vol. 2, The First Fraser Years 1976–78, ed.R. Scotton andH. Ferber(:Longman Cheshire, 1980); but compareDi Giorgio andEndres, “The Changing Fortunes of CES Unemployment Statistics.” Google Scholar

49.Rosemary Hunter, “Women Workers and Federal Industrial Law: From Harvester to Comparable Worth,” Australian Journal of Labour Law 1(1988):147–71;P. Ryan, andT. Rowse, “Women, Arbitration and the Family,” Labour History, no. 29(November1975):15–30. The division reflected the colonial statistical practice, mentioned earlier, of separating the adult population into “breadwinners” and “dependants”:Deacon, “Political Arithmetic,” 35–41. Google Scholar

50.Orwell de R. Foenander, Wartime Labour Developments in Australia(:Melbourne University Press, 1943);Ryan andRowse, “Women, Arbitration and the Family.” Google Scholar

51. National Security (Manpower) Regulations, Statutory Rule, no. 113 of1942, 11 March1942. Google Scholar

52.Wallace Wurth, Control of Manpower in Australia: A General Review of the Administration of the Manpower Directorate, February 1942–September 1944(:Government Printer, 1944), 95. Google Scholar

53.Wurth, Control of Manpower, 95, 132. Google Scholar

54.Ibid., 132. Google Scholar

55.SeeTony Endres, “Designing Unemployment Statistics in New Zealand: A History Study in Political Arithmetic c1860–1960,” Australian Economic History Review 22(1982), 168;Whiteside, Bad Times, 50–51. Google Scholar

56.Ryan andRowse, “Women, Arbitration and the Family,” 27–29. Google Scholar

57.Ann Porter, Gendered States: Women, Unemployment Insurance, and the Political Economy of the Welfare State in Canada, 1945–1997(:University of Toronto Press, 2003), 43. Google Scholar

58.Porter, Gendered States, 80. Google Scholar

59.William Beveridge, Unemployment: A Problem of Industry(:Longmans, Green and Co, 1931), 280. Google Scholar

60.R. Smee, “Some Problems in the Measurement of Unemployment: A Comment,” Journal of Industrial Relations 11(1969):253. On Canada, seePorter, Gendered States, 48. Google Scholar

61.Bancroft, The American Labor Force, 192; see alsoP. Hauser, “The Labour Force and Gainful Workers: Concept, Measurement and Comparability,” American Journal of Sociology 54(1949):341. Google Scholar

62.G. Palmer, A Guide to Australian Economic Statistics(:Macmillan, 1963), 82;Bancroft, The American Labor Force. Google Scholar

63.Steinke, “Some Problems,” 3. Google Scholar

64.Innes, Knowledge and Public Policy, 186. Google Scholar

65.Smee, “Some Problems,” 53. Google Scholar

66.Bill Merrilees, “Hidden Unemployment of Women in Australia,” Journal of Industrial Relations 19(1977):53, emphasis in original. Google Scholar

67.Smee, “Some Problems,” 253(emphasis in original). Google Scholar

68.S. Stevens, “Problems in the Interpretation of Australian Statistics of Unemployment,” Economic Record 39, no. 86(1963):144. Google Scholar

69. Unemployment and Sickness Benefit Act 1944, s18. Google Scholar

70.Murphy, A Decent Provision, 215. Google Scholar

71. Old Age Pensions Act 1908, ss 16(1)(c) and 21(1)(b). Google Scholar

72.John Murphy, “Conditional Inclusion: Aborigines and Welfare Rights in Australia, 1900–1947,” Australian Historical Studies 44(2013):206–26. Google Scholar

73. Unemployment and Sickness Benefit Act 1944, s19. Google Scholar

74.Kewley, Social Security in Australia, 266. Google Scholar

75. Social Services Amendment Act 1959, s 137A. Google Scholar

76. Social Services Amendment Act 1966, s29. Google Scholar

77.Stephen Gray, “The Elephant in the Drawing Room: Slavery and the Stolen Wages Debate,” Australian Indigenous Law Review 11(2007):43. Google Scholar

78.Ibid., 44. Google Scholar

79.Tim Rowse, White Flour, White Power:From Rations to Citizenship in Central Australia(:Cambridge University Press, 1998), 140. Google Scholar

80.Ibid., 136. Google Scholar

81.Ibid., 135. Google Scholar

82.Ibid., 142. Google Scholar

83.A Welfare Ordinance enacted in 1953 but not proclaimed until 1959 had reclassified “full blood” Aborigines in the Northern Territory as “wards” under the guardianship of the Director of Welfare. Despite the racially neutral nomenclature, it was not possible for white people to be classified as wards whereas all but six full-blood Aborigines in the Territory were designated wards:Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal People and the Australian Nation(:Aboriginal Studies Press, 2011), 85. Google Scholar

84.Rowse, White Flour, 166. Evidence before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court in 1965 estimated the total cost of employing a ward was about half that of employing a stockman on award wages:Charles Rowley, The Remote Aborigines(:Australian National University Press, 1971), 301. Google Scholar

86.Will Sanders, “The Politics of Unemployment Benefit for Aborigines: Some Consequences of Economic Marginalisation,”inEmployment and Unemployment: A Collection of Papers, ed.D. Wade-Marshall andP. Loveday(:ANU North Australian Research Unit, 1985), 139, 142. Google Scholar

87.Ibid., 141. Google Scholar

88.Ibid., 142, 147. Google Scholar

89.Endres, “Designing Unemployment Statistics,” 169. Google Scholar

90.Monica Threlfall, “A Critique of the Statistics that Support European Employment Policy,” Radical Statistics, no. 88(2005):26. See alsoSengenberger, Beyond the Measurement Of Unemployment. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here


Author details

O’Donnell, Anthony