The Internet has plenty of pickings if you're looking for a chart that compares the job losses of this recession (beginning in December 2007) with the losses of previous recessions.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's office put out this chart, comparing this recession to the previous two recessions. It's a startling image, but it's a slightly ridiculous comparison, given that no one is comparing this recession to the past two. The President himself calls this downturn "the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression."
Justin Fox at Time has this chart, comparing this recession with the previous five. It's much more helpful, given that our unemployment rate is still well below the 1982 peak of 10.8 percent.
As Fox says:
"So far the fall in employment is comparable to that in 1974-1975 and 1981-1982. If the comparison holds, the declines should end within the next four or five months. But we of course have no idea whether the comparison will hold."
Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com picks up on Fox's chart and muses that the economy's volatility has lessened as it has expanded in the postwar period, possibly leading to drawn-out employment recoveries following recessions (or jobless recoveries). Here's a Silver table:
Months Required for Employment Rate to Return to Prior Peak
- September 1948 20
- July 1953 23
- August 1957 20
- April 1960 20
- March 1970 18
- July 1974 19
- March 1980 10
- July 1981 26
- June 1990 31
- February 2001 47
- December 2007 ??
Economist William Polley has a chart with an even broader stretch--11 recessions. He notes that "the current recession (orange) is very similar to the 1981 recession (light green) in terms of job losses as a percentage of peak employment. But we have had sharper downturns in percentage terms."
Polley says he thinks it will take 18 to 24 months for employment to return to its last peak.