Two new studies point to growing optimism among Americans as the U.S. economy emerges from the worst recession in decades.

The two reports–one from Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., Milwaukee; and other released by Citigroup Inc., New York–note an upward trend in the positive outlooks among Americans, despite the near-term challenges of the current economic climate. Among the more striking findings, the Northwestern Mutual data reveal a 60% year-over-year jump in people who scored at the high end of its “optimism scale.”

The Northwestern Mutual Optimism Barometer, consisting of six questions, were culled from the company’s New American Reality Study. The report was commissioned in 2009 by Northwestern Mutual to provide insight into how Americans are handling the economic, political, and social changes in the U.S., and to reveal how people view their lives and their futures.

Nearly 4 in 10 of survey respondents scored between 8 and 10 (out of a top score of 10), representing a 60% year-over-year increase in people at the highest end of the scale. For the year-ago period only 25% of Americans scored between 8 and 10 on the optimism scale.

Optimism shifted up in all categories, leaving only 2.4% of total respondents in the “least optimistic” category (0-4 on the optimism scale) versus 19% last year.

In terms of demographics, younger respondents skewed slightly less optimistic than other age groups. Compared with an overall average score of 6.8, respondents 17 and younger averaged 6.3; and those 18-20 averaged 6.8.

Older respondents, the report notes, were less likely to strongly agree with the statement, “a person can do anything if they put their mind to it.” Total “strongly agree” responses ranged from 66.7% for age 17 and younger, down to 42% for 60 and older.

“These results suggest that Americans are, in increasing numbers, accepting the reality of the ‘new normal’ while also being able to see beyond the immediate challenges of the current economic cycle and remain optimistic about their long-term prospects,” says Greg Oberland, executive vice president at Northwestern Mutual. “We find it encouraging that Americans appear to be widening their time horizons and bringing a long-term approach to how they pursue their goals.

A separate survey from Citigroup Inc., New York, buttresses the Northwestern Mutual findings, noting that most Americans remain “cautiously optimistic” the economy will improve over the next 12 months.

Nearly three in five (58%) of the Citi respondents believe that the business conditions in their area will improve. The expectations are restrained though, as 53% expect that the economy will get only somewhat better rather than much better (5%).

A higher proportion of Americans (66%) are hopeful that their own situation will improve over the same period of time.

Americans’ optimism, the Citi report adds, must be tempered by their continuing concerns about the economy and the current financial situation.

Eight in 10 respondents rate the economy as fair (44%) or poor (36%), while 52% say their financial conditions are about the same as they were a year ago. By more than two to one, Americans say they are worse off financially (33%) rather than better off financially (15%) than they were a year ago.

Just 36% of Americans believe the economy has hit bottom; 59% believe the economy is still in decline. While these numbers are more positive than they were last September, when the figures were 33% and 63%, respectively, the data reveals that the public still believes the end of the downturn is some distance off.

“These survey results show most Americans are still feeling hunkered down financially,” says Jonathan Clements, director of financial education at Citi Personal Wealth Management. “Spring may be here, but consumers are still feeling an economic winter. These results speak to the powerful and enduring impact of the financial crisis on the American psyche.”