The reported unemployment rate during the Great Depression was significantly higher than the reported unemployment rates of the Great Recession.
But are the two rates comparable? Before 1938, children were a significant part of the labor force. In 1900, children younger than sixteen made up as much as eighteen percent of the labor force. It was only when the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 became law that children younger than sixteen were barred from working in manufacturing and mining but not agriculture.
To make the numbers more comparable, it is better to get the ratio of Employment to the Total Population (which includes children). When we do this, the two measures are not so far apart. In 1929, the year "0" for the Great Depression, 54.41% of the total population was employed. By 1933, year "4", only 41.97% of the population was employed. But the rise in employment was dramatic. Four years later, 47.63% of the population was employed, almost six percentage points higher. The employment momentum only stalled when the tax hikes of 1937 induced another recession in 1938 and new child labor laws barred children from the labor force. If the momentum had continued, the employment ratio would have recovered in less than five years.
In 2007, the year "0" of the Great Recession, 48.38% of the population was employed. Four years later, only 44.82% of the population was employed, a drop of less than 4 percentage points. By January 2016 or four years after the Great Recession bottomed out, only 46.62% of the population is employed, an increase of only 1.93% percentage points. The growth rate of employment was less than a third that of the Great Depression. At this rate, it will take five more years or 2021 before employment recovers to that of Year "0".
Great Depression vs. Great Recession
Source: www.worldbank.org, www.bea.gov, Reinhart and Rogoff, "This Time is Different"