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Prestigious VICI grant for Prof. Herman de Jong: Crisis in the 1930s, but better welfare?

05 February 2013

De Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) has awarded Prof. Herman de Jong of the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen a prestigious € 1.5 million VICI grant to be spent on research into quality of life indicators and economic growth in the first half of the twentieth century. ‘I am delighted’, said De Jong in an initial reaction. ‘I regard it as a special privilege to work on a large project with a research team of young academics.’

NWO awards a special VICI grant once a year to no more than 3 or 4 academics in each academic field. The VICI grants are intended for ‘excellent, experienced researchers who have successfully developed a new research line and thus established themselves prominently at both national and international levels’, says NWO.

Herman de Jong
Herman de Jong
Learning lessons

‘My specialism, economic history, throws up many intriguing questions and is a field from which we can still learn many lessons’, explains De Jong. ‘Why was there such a clear improvement in the standard of living in the 1930s, for example, despite the economy doing so badly? It turns out to be due to a complicated interplay of factors, and we want to decipher what is cause, and what effect.’


Despite world wars, ethnic cleansing, holocaust and emigration, the European population increased by 100 million in the first half of the twentieth century. During that period, the birth and death rates dropped, child mortality declined and life expectancy increased. Infectious diseases like TB struck less often, people became taller on average, the working week was shortened and leisure time increased. ‘Strangely enough, these improvements in welfare cannot be traced in the official figures that measure economic growth’, according to De Jong.

Role of government

So to what do we owe these improvements in general health? Not to medical breakthroughs, that’s for sure – antibiotics date from after 1945 – but rather to better housing, sewer systems and clean drinking water, as well as an increased resistance to disease thanks to better nutrition. De Jong: ‘And the underlying causes can be found, for example, in the role of government, which spent more on healthcare, better housing and childcare, and in the fact that there was less unequal income distribution.’

Prosperity in a wide sense

‘Precisely in a bad economic period, welfare improvements started to pick up pace. Could this be due to economic developments in the previous century? And what effect did the rise in life expectancy in turn have on the economic performance of countries? It’s not always clear what is cause and what effect. We have to interpret the concept of welfare in a much wider sense.’

Herman de Jong

Herman de Jong (1958) studied history in Groningen, and after gaining a degree in economic and social history worked fora number of years as a researcher for Shell. He then became a lecturer at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Groningen, where in 1999 he gained a PhD with a thesis on industry in the Netherlands between 1913 and 1965. He was then appointed Associate Professor, and in 2012 professor to the chair in Economic History at the Faculty of Economics and Business. In 2011 De Jong was appointed Secretary General of the European Historical Economics Society. He will use the VICI grant to appoint two postdocs and two PhD researchers to conduct a total of five years of research.

De Jong teaches on the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programmes at the Faculty of Economics and Business. At the start of this academic year, he was elected Lecturer of the Year for the Faculty, a prize awarded on the basis of student assessments.

Note for the press

For more information: professor H.J. de Jong

Last modified:13 January 2020 3.18 p.m.
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