In 1982, the United States experienced the highest annual unemployment rate since the Great Depression -- 9.7 percent. In principle, that rate is directly comparable to the 8.1 percent seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for February 2009, and suggests that current unemployment is still not as bad as it was in 1982.
The official unemployment rate, however, masks two important differences between the unemployment rate in 1982 and today. The first difference is demographic. In 1982, the US population was substantially younger than it is today. Even in an otherwise identical economy, we would expect a younger population to have a higher unemployment rate than an older population would. The second difference is statistical. The main government survey used to measure the unemployment rate -- the Current Population Survey (CPS) reaches a smaller share of the population today than it did in 1982, and is especially likely to miss people who are not employed. As a result, the official unemployment rate understates the unemployment rate relative to 1982.