It's been a few months since I featured this pair of charts above showing: a) jobless claims vs. the labor force, and b) jobless claims as a share of the labor force, both updated through July (BLS data here and here), and updated now with c) jobless claims as a share of civilian employment (see chart below).
The top chart shows why unadjusted jobless claims are meaningless: the size of the U.S. labor force has almost doubled over the last 42 years, from 77.57 million in 1968 to the current level of more than 153 million. The bottom chart shows jobless claims adjusted for the size of the U.S. labor force. Jobless claims averaged 458,250 in July, which is 0.2984% of the July labor force of 153,560,000, and is close to a 21-month low (lowest since August 2008). Jobless claims as a percent of the labor force have declined in 14 out of the last 16 months, starting in April 2009.
This measure of initial jobless claims, adjusted for the increasing size of the U.S. labor force over time, shows that jobless claims peaked during this recession above the levels of the last two recessions (1990-1991 and 2001), but were never anywhere close to the levels of the previous three recessions in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, and about the same as the 1969-1970 recession. The sharp reduction in adjusted jobless claims from the March 2009 high of 0.415% follows the same pattern of sharp reductions at the end of each of the last six recessions.
Bottom Line: Adjusted jobless claims in recent months are at about the exact same levels as during the last two post-recession expansions in 1992 and 2002 (see red line in the bottom graph). See update below, featuring jobless claims as a percent of civilian employment instead of the labor force.