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Americans, employment and the ‘Optimism Gap’

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David Brancaccio: In just a little while, we’ll hear the latest on how many people were forced to sign up for unemployment benefits.  But how’s the job market doing if you actually ask people? That’s the subject of our weekly Attitude Check, a partnership with Gallup.

Joining us now: Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup. Good morning Frank.

Frank Newport: Good morning David.

Brancaccio: So give me the latest gage, as it were, of how Americans are feeling about this job market.

Newport: Well, I would say: good news, bad news — how’s that for a little ambiguity? Let me give you a couple of examples: 77 percent of Americans say, in our April update, that now is a bad time to find a quality job, so that seems pretty miserable. However, as recently as November, that was up at 90 percent. So there’s a definitely improvement, but still a significant majority of Americans say it’s not a great time to be finding a quality job.

A quarter of Americans tell us that unemployment still remains the most important problem facing the country — that’s second only to general mentions of the economy. Now that’s high, but unemployment mentions were at 30 percent just a few months ago, so that’s down as well.

Here’s an interesting figure for you — which I think is very important: 68 percent of Americans, David, tell us that they personally know somebody who is laid off or lost their job within the last six months. That’s as high as we’ve ever measured that figure.

Brancaccio: Anyone who keeps an eye on sociology knows there’s often a difference between when you ask a question about the person — how are you feeling or how is the job picture to you — compared to what’s going on around you. Sometimes there’s a gap.

Newport: Very shrewd insight. People have written about it; we’ve been measuring that at Gallup for a number of years. Some authors have called that the “Optimism Gap.” One person said it’s the, “I’m OK, You’re Not” syndrome. In other words, when you ask me about myself, I’m doing fine; but when you ask about what’s happening out there across the country, things are not nearly as positive.

And we certainly have an example of it when it comes to jobs. Here’s an example: we ask Americans who are working, thinking about the next twelve months, how likely is it that you will lose your job? Be laid off, you personally — and only 15 percent of Americans said that was even fairly likely; 5 percent said very likely. So despite those figures I gave you a moment ago, most of us who are working blissfully say, “Hey, that’s not going to affect me, I’m perfectly fine here in my job.”

Brancaccio: Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of Gallup joins us every Thursday. Frank, thank you for this.

Newport: My pleasure.


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