Historic Unemployment in America: How the current unemployment picture compares

This is the longest that the U.S. has had unemployment over 8% in the post WWII era. We are past three years and three months. The previous record was two years 3 months, between November 1981 and January 1984. Furthermore, this is only the seventh time unemployment has topped 6.5% in that time period.  The longest duration that unemployment has stayed above that mark was seven years, from 1980-87. We are currently approaching four years above that mark.

Since 1948, unemployment rates have averaged 5.76% with a standard deviation of 1.6. This puts the 2008 peak of 10% 2.9 standard deviations above the norm. In a normal curve this would be in the top 1% of values, compared to our current 8.1% which is around 1.4 standard deviations or the top 15% in a normal curve.

During the Great Depression, unemployment topped 8% for 12 years, from 1930-41 based on census data. The rate peaked in 1933 at 24.9%, the highest in recorded American history.

The highest annual average unemployment rate since WWII was 9.7% in 1982. In 2010, the annual average was 9.6%. So, while this recession’s unemployment picture is not nearly as deep or long as the Great Depression, it is the longest and second deepest since WWII. Until unemployment falls below 6%, we can continue to expect an unfavorable job market.

Additional Resources

Bureau of Labor Statistics Unemployment Rates http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet

Early 1900-1950s Unemployment: http://www.nber.org/chapters/c2644.pdf

Bureau of Labor Statistics Unemployment Averages: http://www.bls.gov/cps/prev_yrs.htm



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