Abstract There have been many international comparisons of unemployment (in the sense of the ILO), usually measured by applying codified indicators based on set norms. Our approach is entirely different. Comparability is not assumed in advance, simply by adjusting the measurement instrument, but itself becomes the object of investigation: is unemployment a meaningful and robust category that gives the jobless an identity in very different societies? In order to answer this question, the article outlines the different phases of a comparative approach based on biographical interviews with unemployed people in three conurbations (Paris, São Paulo, Tokyo). A comprehensive comparison reveals both the robustness and the fragility of joblessness as a category, thus constituting a useful adjunct to standardised comparisons. In the tradition of figurational sociology, we see unemployment as a nexus, a point of intersection between normativities that vary with time and space and subjectivities that vary with social status and personal itineraries.