Jobless Claims Would Have to Top 900,000 To Reach the Same Levels of the 1970s and 1980s
Update: I found a longer dataset for jobless claims and was able to update the post below.
A Google News search for the two phrases "unemployment claims" and "26 years" results in more than 100 news items that report some version of this story: "The number of new U.S. unemployment claims rose to 589,000 in the past week, matching the highest level in more than 26 years." But what most news reports failed to mention is that today's labor force (154.4 million) is almost 40% higher than in 1983 (110.7 million), see chart above (click to enlarge), meaning that unadjusted comparisons of jobless claims today to 1983 are relatively meaningless.
The chart below shows monthly jobless claims as a percentage of the total labor force, from Jan. 1973 to December 2008 (should be approximately the same in January 2009). The current level of jobless claims as a percent of the labor force (0.355%) is above the 2001 recession, but below the four previous recessions (1973-1975, 1980, 1981-1982 and 1990-1991). To reach the same levels of jobless claims (as a percent of the labor force) as the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s (0.60%), we would have to see jobless claims today reach levels above 900,000.