04/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Employment Plunges: Fastest Rate Drop On Record

The deeper the United States gets into the economic crisis, the further back the media's "since dates" get for various economic and employment indicators. Most, though, have only dated to the '70s and '80s, while political rhetoric reaches back to call the downturn "the worst since the Great Depression."

One indicator in the data released by the Department of Labor on Friday, though, zipped right on past the Me Decade. The drop in the employment rate is the sharpest since the number started being measured in 1948.

The employment rate is the glass-half-full side of the unemployment figure.

"What's striking here is we've already had a larger fall off in the employment rate in this downturn, which clearly we're not at the end of, than we had in any of the prior downturns," said economist Dean Baker with the liberal-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research.

In the months since the downturn began, it's fallen 3.1 points. During the worst downturn since the Great Depression, in the early '80s, the employment rate fell only three points over two years.

In the months ahead, if the economy continues to shed more than 600,000 jobs per month, as it has been, then the unemployment drop will soon match the employment collapse. For now, the employment number's plummet is in the lead because of the historical gender makeup of the American workforce.

"In prior periods you had a very rapid increase in women participating in the workforce," said Baker. Even in the early '80s, women were still entering the workforce for the first time. Job losses, then, were happening against a backdrop of a rising employment rate among women.

"There's still some upward trend in women entering the workforce, but it's much more limited because most of the women who want to work are already working," Baker said. The most recent Department of Labor figures still show some disparity, with 75 million men employed and only 67 million women working.

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