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February 2005, Vol. 128, No.2
The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth: 1979 cohort at 25
This issue of the Monthly Labor Review celebrates the 25th anniversary of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979 Cohort (NLSY79). The National Longitudinal Surveys (NLS) program, of which the NLSY79 is the flagship survey, is a bit of an anomaly among the Bureau of Labor Statistics many data collection efforts. None of the Bureau’s key economic indicators relies on NLS data. Only a couple of the more than one hundred press releases the Bureau publishes each year involve data collected by the NLS program. It is doubtful that financial markets ever will react strongly to the release of NLS data. And unlike the current employment statistics, the inflation statistics, or the unemployment rate, measures from the NLSY79 are not likely to be discussed in everyday conversation or even in the business news.
Yet, the NLSY79 has been extremely influential. Over the last 25 years, it has provided the data for thousands of Ph.D. dissertations, working papers, journal articles, and books that have shaped theory and knowledge in disciplines such as economics, sociology, education, psychology, and health sciences. The survey’s primary constituency includes hundreds of researchers within universities, think tanks, and government agencies both in the United States and abroad. Because of its quality, breadth, and thoroughness, the NLSY79 has become probably the most analyzed longitudinal data set in the social sciences. Almost every issue of leading labor economics and demography journals contain at least one article that uses NLSY79 data.
The main product of the NLS program, unlike that of most other BLS programs, is the actual microdata generated by the surveys. For each respondent, researchers can access a record that details his or her responses to every question in the survey, along with summary and supporting information. Of course, this record is stripped of all information that could identify the individual respondent.1 With 20 rounds of data currently available, the NLSY79 has become an enormous data set, comprising more than 75,000 variables for each respondent and requiring about 500 megabytes for its storage. The NLSY79 provides researchers with data from a nationally representative sample of 12,686 individuals who have participated in up to 21 hour-long interviews over the last 25 years.2 These individuals were 14 to 22 years old when they were first surveyed in 1979; they are now in their forties. By observing their lives over the 25-year period, researchers can study the life course of a large sample of American men and women born at the end of the baby boom (1957 to 1964) as they navigate the years between adolescence or young adulthood and middle age.
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1 Under special arrangement, researchers can access certain geographic information about respondents in order to link environmental variables to the records of those respondents. Personally identifying information, however, is never available to researchers; it is protected by law through the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act.
2 Much of the summary information that follows can be found on the NLSY79 Web site at http://www.bls.gov/nls/nlsy79.htm or in the NLSY79 User’s Guide (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001).
National Longitudinal Surveys
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