WASHINGTON — Confidence in the U.S. job market has rebounded to roughly a normal level from its record low after the Great Recession, a trend that could help boost the economy.
Americans increasingly feel they could find a new job if necessary, according to the results of the 2012 General Social Survey, a long-standing poll of public opinion. And fear of being laid off dropped last year from its 2010 peak to roughly its average for the 35 years the question has been asked.
The percentage of Americans who said it would be somewhat or very easy to find a job if they lost theirs rose to 54 percent last year from 46 percent in 2010. The 2010 figure was the lowest since 1983, when the United States was also emerging from a deep recession. On average in the survey's history, about 58 percent of respondents have said it would be very or somewhat easy to find a job.
As layoffs have declined, fewer Americans fear losing their job. Last year, 11 percent of adults thought it was somewhat or very likely that they'd lose theirs. That was down from a record-high 16 percent in 2010. And it matches the 11 percent average the survey has found since it began asking the question.
Americans may be feeling even more secure now than when the survey was taken last year. The number of layoffs fell in January to the lowest level in the 12 years the government has tracked the data. Fewer people are seeking unemployment benefits.
And employers have stepped up hiring, though the job gains slowed in March. Employers added nearly 2.2 million jobs in 2012, an average of about 180,000 a month. That's enough to slowly lower the unemployment rate.
Even though the rate remains high at 7.6 percent, greater confidence among those who have a job could encourage more consumer spending and boost economic growth.
"If you're not afraid of being laid off, you're going to spend more of your money," said Drew Matus, an economist at UBS.
The General Social Survey has been conducted roughly every two years since 1972. The survey is a project of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, with primary funding from the National Science Foundation.
From mid-March through September last year, 1,975 adults were asked about their financial situation and their feelings about the job market. The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 2.2 percentage points. The results were only recently made available.
The survey found that confidence in the economy varied by education. Those with college degrees felt more job security than those with less education. And since the recession ended in June 2009, Americans with a college education have reported greater improvement in confidence than have those with high school degrees or less.
Only 6 percent of college-educated Americans said in 2012 that it was somewhat or very likely that they'd lose their job. That was down from 10 percent in 2010.
Those with high school degrees were also more confident in 2012: Twelve percent of this group feared losing their job, down from 19 percent two years earlier.
But Americans with less than a high school degree reported little change: 26 percent felt it was somewhat or very likely they would be laid off in 2012, about on par with the 29 percent who felt so in 2010.
On whether it would be somewhat or very easy to find another job, 59 percent of those with college degrees said so, up from 52 percent in 2010. Among high school graduates, that figure rose to 53 percent last year from 43 percent in 2010.
Those without a high school degree still lack confidence: Only 40 percent said it would be somewhat or very easy to find new work, essentially unchanged from the 41 percent who said so in 2010.
Among the survey's other findings:
— Fewer Americans say their financial situation has worsened in the past few years, though the proportion remains high. A record 37 percent of Americans in 2010 said their finances had deteriorated. In 2012, that figure fell to 30 percent, still the second-highest on record.
— More Americans define themselves as in the "lower class" than at any time since 1972. A record 8 percent classified themselves as lower class in 2012, the same as in 2010. That compares with the record low of 4 percent in 1985.
— The proportion of Americans who expect their children to be somewhat or much worse off financially than they are was 20 percent in 2012, compared with 18 percent in 2010. The figure is slightly below the record level of 22 percent in 1996.