The steep rise in unemployment in November, to 8.4 percent of the labor force , is causing growing concern about the impact that the deepening recession will have on American hourly paid and salaried workers. There is grim talk of a return to the problems of the 1930s.
The worries are largely unwarranted. Today's conditions are by no means the same as those half a century ago. Then, high unemployment was a major social issue; now, it is more a political issue as a result of government and private safeguards against the misery and despair of unemployment.
With 8.4 percent unemployment, an increase from 8 percent in October, the number of jobless reached just over 9 million of a total work force of 107 million. The totals were the highest since the severe recession of 1974-75, when the rate reached 9 percent before turning down.
If President Reagan's first efforts to end a year-long rift with unions have had any limited successes, the November unemployment report probably wiped them out. AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland immediately renewed attacks on the Reagan economic program: It is ''not solving but aggravating the nation's economic and human crisis,'' he said.
''It is time to adopt a new antirecession program that will ease human hardship now and build toward a healthy economy,'' Mr. Kirkland said.
Numerically the total is approaching that in the depression 1930s, when unemployment reached 12,830,000. However, with a smaller work force, 51,590,000 in 1933, the national jobless rate was a grim 24.9 percent; only 38,760,000 were working. These hardships resulted in President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal measures to ease the impact of unemployment through a benefit system that has been revised through the years until a jobless worker now is able to collect benefits that in many instances exceed one-half of what was earned while working. Paid for a limited period, in most instances six months or more, these benefits have eased hardships considerably.
Another change from the 1930s is the large number of families that now have a husband and wife as bread earners; 50 years ago so there was almost total reliance on a husband's wages.
Still another change, in auto and other industries, results from labor contracts that assure workers of partial pay if they are laid off - as much as 90 percent or more through pay and jobless benefits in the case of auto workers with long seniority.
Those who are laid off talk of limited or skipped Christmases this year, reduced living standards, and mounting bills, but the specter of soup kitchens, long bread lines, and apple selling on street corners is not likely to reappear.
Union officials who met with Mr. Reagan earlier in the week sharply opposed the administration's economic program and called for changes. Most left the meeting dissatisfied: Except for a minor concession on the air traffic controllers issue, one that could open other government jobs to some of those fired for striking, the best the unionists could say of the meeting was, ''We at least talked face to face, something we hadn't been able to do since last January.''
When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its unemployment figures two days later, President Reagan said that, having grown up and entered the work force in the Great Depression, ''I can assure you that I do not take unemployment lightly. It's a great tragedy for the people involved.''
Nevertheless, the President and others in his administration remain firmly committed to the policies that labor strongly opposes. They said that rising unemployment is ''the price you have to pay for bringing down inflation.'' The White House expressed optimism that the Reagan economics program will reverse the unemployment trend next year.
For organized labor, that was not enough.
The November unemployment rise affected nearly all groups in the labor force, but the impact was especially large for those in blue-collar occupations. The rate for adult men rose to 7.2 percent, just below the post-World War II high.