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In Aotearoa/New Zealand unemployment is a continuing social concern that has been linked to a range of negative consequences, including various psychological and physical ailments. Whereas findings linking unemployment to such conse-quences are highly prevalent, few studies have explored people's experiences of unemployment. This article presents an analysis of 26 semistructured individual interviews with unemployed people in order to explore the social construction of unemployment. It is argued that the meaning of unemployment is in many respects analogous to what previous research on lay health beliefs has found regarding the meaning of illness. Prominent themes from literature on the meaning of illness are used to inform an analysis of the meaning of unemployment. The implications of constructing unemployment as an illness are explored in relation to the assignment of cause and responsibility and to the ways the unemployed are socially positioned. Tactics used by participants to preserve a sense of moral worth in response to the stigma of unemployment provide a key focal point for this article.