The new snapshot, released by the Labor Department, shows the crucial jobs market deteriorating at an alarmingly rapid pace.
The jobless rate zoomed to 6.5 percent in October from 6.1 percent in September, matching the rate in March 1994. Employers have cut jobs each month this year.
Unemployment has now surpassed the high seen after the last recession in 2001. The jobless rate peaked at 6.3 percent in June 2003.
Employers got rid of 240,000 jobs in October, marking the 10th straight month of payroll reductions.
Job losses in August and September turned out to be much deeper. Employers cut 127,000 positions in August, compared with 73,000 previously reported. A whopping 284,000 jobs were axed last month, compared with the 159,000 jobs first reported.
So far this year, a staggering 1.2 million jobs have disappeared.
The employment market is much weaker than economists expected. They were forecasting the unemployment rate to climb to 6.3 percent in October and for payrolls to fall by around 200,000.
Job losses were widespread. Factories cut 90,000 jobs, construction companies got rid of 49,000 jobs, retailers cut payrolls by 38,000, professional and business services reduced employment by 45,000, financial activities cut 24,000 jobs, and leisure and hospitality axed 16,000 positions.
All that more than swamped some gains elsewhere, including in the government, as well as in education and health care.
Racing to assemble his new Democratic Cabinet, President-elect Barack Obama will huddle with economic advisers later on Friday. His team has been in close contact with the Bush administration to pave the way for a smooth hand-off of power.
All the economy's woes -- a housing collapse, mounting foreclosures, hard-to-get credit and financial market upheaval -- will confront Obama when he assumes office early next year. And, the employment situation is likely to get worse.
Many expect the jobless rate to climb to 8 percent, possibly higher, next year. In the 1980-1982 recession, the unemployment rate rose as high as 10.8 percent before inching down.
To provide fresh relief, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats, in a lame-duck session later this month, are pushing to enact another round of economic stimulus of around $100 billion.