National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979

The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), sponsored and funded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of the U.S. Department of Labor, is the youth-focused component of the National Longitudinal Survey (NLS) Program – a set of surveys used to gather information on the labor market experiences of American men and women. The National Longitudinal Surveys are conducted jointly by the Ohio State University Center for Human Resource Research (CHRR) and NORC at the University of Chicago.

The U.S. Department of Labor began the National Longitudinal Survey Program (NLS) in the mid-1960s with surveys of four separate groups: older men, mature women, young men and young women. Research based on the data from these four cohorts serves as a basis for the accumulated knowledge on which social and economic policy is formulated. These surveys provide much of what we know about the return on investments in schooling, career progression, job turnover, hours of work, and wages of the U.S. labor force. Government agencies and academic institutions regularly utilize the data and findings of these longitudinal surveys in their recommendations to – and testimony before – Congress.

The eligible respondents for of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 were originally selected to represent a cross section of the U.S. population of young persons in 1979. Referred to as the original “Youth,” these respondents were born between 1957 and 1964. As with other national surveys NORC has conducted, the NLSY79 used samples of housing units (HUs) selected from 101 primary sampling units (PSUs). In 1978, a cross-section of households representing the population of the United States were selected out from these 101 PSUs plus a PSU in Alaska and 100 supplementary PSUs. In the fall of 1978, interviewers screened some 77,000 households in all 202 PSUs to identify families who had youth between the ages of 14 and 21 as of December 31, 1978. From these eligible families, all youths in the above age range were asked to be part of the NLSY79. All respondents who completed the first interview are considered to be cohort members. In addition, certain supplemental sampling groups were drawn, including a supplemental sample of non-black, non-Hispanic poor men and women, black men and women, and Hispanic men and women. A military sample was also drawn.

Therefore the NLSY79 is a nationally representative sample of 12,686 young men and women who were 14-22 years old when they were first surveyed in 1979. Removal of the oversamples of poor whites and military reduced the sample to about 9600. These individuals are in their fifties and sixties. Since their first interview, respondents have made the transitions from school to work, and from their parents’ homes to becoming parents and homeowners themselves. Data collected yearly from 1979 to 1994, and biennially from 1996 to the present, chronicle these changes and provide researchers an opportunity to study in great detail the experiences of a large group of adults who can be considered representative of all American men and women born in the late 1950s and early 1960s and living in the U.S. in 1979. One of the record setting elements of the study is that nearly 80% of the living respondents participate each year of the survey. Few longitudinal studies have maintained the cooperation of the panel in such representative numbers without using sample replacement.

The primary purpose of the NLSY79 is the collection of data on each respondent’s labor force experiences, labor market attachment, and investments in education and training. The content of the NLSY79 is much broader due to the interests of government agencies besides the Department of Labor. Throughout the survey, various agencies have funded special sets of questions.

Data collected in these interviews have been of great value to researchers and policy makers concerned with the nation's employment needs. Researchers have used NLSY79 data to look at many topics including: factors that influence a person’s decision to enter or leave the labor force or to re enter it after a period away from work; the effectiveness of various job training programs; links between the migration, schooling, training and work experience of individuals; the ways in which education, social attitudes, and family background affect individual opportunities for employment and advancement.

The information collected in this survey is used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and other researchers to understand the labor market experience of individuals over time. Over the past 30 years, the NLSY79 has been designed to develop a profile of American youths’ transitions from school to work and into independent households, providing researchers with the data necessary to analyze job market outcomes and family decision-making. The survey is longitudinal which means we interview the same respondents each round and we plan to continue interviewing these same respondents for years to come.

Information provided by the NLSY79 group of respondents has been used by Congress in the discussion of important issues. For example, NLSY79 statistics determined that youth unemployment rates were much higher than rates reported by other studies. NLSY79 provided evidence that young people enlisting in the Armed Forces were better motivated and better educated than some commentators had believed. Every year, more planners and researchers are using the information from this NLSY79 group to structure government policy and improve understanding of the critical events in the lives of Americans in this cohort.

The NLS bibliography database houses nearly 6,700 summaries of ongoing and completed research projects, including published journal articles, government reports, policy analyses, monographs, working papers, conference presentations, doctoral dissertations, and master’s theses. Team members on the NLS Program routinely attend professional meetings of economists, demographers, social policy analysts, sociologists, and developmental psychologists, promoting the use of these data by presentations, poster sessions, and the like. In the past four years, members of the NLSY management team have successfully offered four variations on courses at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies that principally feature NLS data.

Due to the success of the data collection - high response rates and solid data quality, combined with the many related topic areas well covered within the questionnaire, key staff members have been consultants to other birth cohorts and presented survey information internationally, in particular England, Australia, Korea, China, and Germany.

NLSY79 Principal Investigators

Elizabeth Cooksey
Ohio State University Center for Human Resource Research (CHRR)

Debby Car
Boston University
Ohio State University Center for Human Resource Research (CHRR)

Infographics and Visualizations



View All