Early 20th Century Unemployment


Early 20th century unemployment had its ups and downs, with the jobless rate ranging from less than three percent in the first eight years, to 24.9 percent in 1933 during the Great Depression.

Early 20th Century Unemployment Statistics

During the first eight years of the 1900's, the unemployment rate was very low-less than three percent. According to BLS.gov, there were 19 business cycles during the 20th century, resulting in highs and lows in unemployment. After 1908, it fluctuated, with a recession recorded in 1915. The unemployment rate had increased to over eight percent. Between 1915 and 1921, the unemployment rate dropped below eight percent, but it increased yet again during another recession in 1921.

The Great Depression was a time of devastating job loss, and at this point in early 20th century unemployment, the unemployment rates soared to above 20 percent and stayed there for years. According to BLS.gov, 1933 was a record high in unemployment-24.9 percent-with over 12 million workers without jobs (37 percent of nonfarm workers were jobless).

While this was a national average, some areas were hit harder than others. After the Great Depression, average national unemployment rate dropped; by 1940, it was roughly 14.6. It rose again slightly in 1938 and 1939, then dipped during the years of World War II. Unemployment rates spiked again at the end of the century, during the early 1980s.

During the 1940's, the unemployment rate steadily declined according to BLS.gov. It went from 14.6 percent in 1940 to 9.9 percent in 1941, then dropped to 4.7 in 1942 and 1.9 in 1943. It remained very low until 1946, when it climbed back to a still low 3.9 percent.

The unemployment rate stayed around 3.9 percent until 1949, when it climbed again to 5.9. During the 1950's, the unemployment rates ranged from 3.0 percent in 1952 to 6.8 percent in 1958.

Working Conditions

Just because unemployment rates were low, that did not mean there was job security or that a workday or week was pleasant. At the beginning of the century, there was fierce competition for jobs due to immigration, job insecurity, no protection or compensation for those who were injured on the job, there was no retirement income, workweeks were long and pay was low. Employees were only employed "at will" and felt its presence constantly. While most of the workers had jobs, they were not enjoying optimal work conditions whatsoever.

By 1940, however, one in four employees had become members of unions, ready to push for changes. The Bureau of Labor began collecting data on work conditions, compensation, and more, and stepped in during World War I. It worked to improve wages, work conditions, legal aid, and social insurance programs.

21st Century Unemployment

Though the economy looked bleak at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, according to BLS.gov the unemployment rate in September of 2009 was only 9.8 percent. That is certainly much higher than it was at the beginning of the 20th Century, but nowhere near the high of 1933 during the Great Depression.

Thanks to the laws that came out of first tumultuous years of highs and lows in unemployment, work conditions have improved. There are guidelines in place to assist those injured on the job, minimum wage requirements, social insurance programs, and more, so that those who have not fallen victim to higher rates of unemployment do not have to suffer through unreasonably harsh conditions.

Final Thoughts

Early 20th century unemployment fluctuated, sometimes dramatically, from below three percent to nearly 25 percent. It went on to stabilize around four to five percent in the 1950's, halfway through the century. When feeling downtrodden about the economy of the 2000's, take a look back at the shifts throughout time for a wider perspective.

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Early 20th Century Unemployment