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These Charts Put the Historic U.S. Job Losses in Perspective



This article is published in collaboration with Visual Capitalist

by Jeff Desjardins



These Charts Put the Historic U.S. Job Losses in Perspective


When recessions hit, it’s not unusual to see millions of jobs lost.


Such episodes are a regular part of the business cycle and when they occur, most businesses do their best to tough things out. Then, as time progresses, it gradually becomes clear that spending must be curtailed, budget cuts must be made, and workers must unfortunately be sent home.


This economic process normally takes months, or even years, to unwind.


But, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the economic status quo, creating a situation that is incomparable to any previous downturn. Instead of a gradual economic transition to slower growth prospects, business operations have suddenly screeched to a halt with no clear window to resume.


Beyond Comparison


The Great Lockdown of the economy has been completely unprecedented, both in terms of the speed of the shutdown and its impact on jobs.


As a result, the statistics being released are completely surreal. Perhaps the best example of this is number for initial jobless claims in the U.S., which tops 22 million over the last four weeks.


Worst U.S. Job Losses on Record (Four Week Period)

Source: FT


As you can see above, the number is 10x higher than many of the worst four-week job losses on record, so historical comparisons don’t come close.


In other words, if you were using recent recessions as a potential barometer of how bad things could get for jobless claims, the numbers coming from COVID-19 crisis just blew up your model.


The Recession Time Machine


To get further context on the numbers above, it’s worth jumping in a time machine to revisit what happened to job numbers in previous recessions:


• Stagflation and Oil Shocks (1973-75) This recession put an end to the Post WWII global economic expansion, and was characterized by the 1973 oil embargo, the aftermath of the Nixon Shock, and the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of international finance. Unemployment and inflation were both high (stagflation), and the unemployment rate in the U.S. reached 9.0% in May 1975.


• The Double-Dip Recession (1980, 1981-1982) This “W-shaped” recession saw economic contraction first in 1980, only to return again in 1981. This corresponded with the Iranian Revolution, as well as Fed chair Paul Volcker’s aggressive policy to rein in inflation with high interest rates. Unemployment peaked at 10.8% in 1982 — the highest rate seen since the Great Depression.


• The Great Recession (2009) The most recent recession in memory peaked with 10.0% in unemployment in October 2009. It took until 2016 for unemployment to fall back to pre-recession levels.


Finally, it’s worth noting that during the Great Depression (1929-1933), unemployment reached a historic high of 24.9%. To get to a comparable equivalent in modern times, there would need to be 41 million Americans out of work permanently.


Room for Optimism


Although the initial jobless claims are staggering and clearly without modern precedent, there is a case to be made for cautious optimism.


Many of the aforementioned recessions took months or years to culminate, with peak job losses occurring at the tail end of each recession. The current crisis, now being called “The Great Lockdown”, caused many businesses to shut doors suddenly and against their will. It also corresponded with unexpected closures of national borders and the halting of regular trade activity around the world.


When and if normal economic activity resumes, it’ll be interesting to see how much of the damage is temporary.


Editor’s note: While we show the figure for peak unemployment during the Great Depression in both the chart and article, there is no comparable number available for weekly jobless claims. According to Federal Reserve data, it appears that the weekly data series on initial jobless claims started in the 1960s.


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