Frequently Asked Questions
What information is available from the NLS?
Questions about Obtaining NLS Data and Protecting
How to use NLS data
Questions about Labor Market Activity
What is a longitudinal survey?
A longitudinal survey obtains information from the same respondents at
multiple points in time. A cross-sectional survey, by comparison, obtains
information from respondents at a particular point in time.
Cross-sectional surveys that are repeated monthly, quarterly, annually, or
with some other periodicity usually include a different sample of
respondents each time they are administered. Many of the repeated
cross-sectional surveys sponsored by BLS include a mix of new and
experienced respondents each time they are administered, rather than
selecting an entirely new sample for each administration.
Longitudinal surveys like the NLSY79 and NLSY97 are useful for studying
changes that occur over long periods of time, such as the number of job
changes or unemployment spells that people experienced over some segment
of their lives, the number of times they moved to a different county or
State, or the number of years in which their family income was below the
poverty threshold. For a variety of reasons, cross-sectional surveys are
not very useful for obtaining reliable information about such long-term
Longitudinal surveys are also useful for examining cause-and-effect
relationships. Cross-sectional surveys of the labor market have shown,
for example, that workers who have been with their employers a longer
period of time have higher earnings than workers who have less tenure with
their employers. Cross-sectional surveys are not very useful, however,
for determining whether longer tenure causes higher pay, higher pay causes
longer tenure, or there is no cause-and-effect relationship at all.
Longitudinal surveys have been used to examine whether the statistical
correlation between tenure and earnings exists because workers become more
productive as they gain seniority and are paid more for that higher
productivity or, conversely, because highly paid workers tend to stay with
their employers for longer periods, rather than seeking employment
What variables are in the National Longitudinal Surveys?
(by category and round)
Do the National Longitudinal Surveys provide monthly,
quarterly, or annual historical estimates of labor market activity?
No. The National Longitudinal Surveys are designed to provide
information about changes that occur in people's lives over time. The
cross-sectional surveys that BLS sponsors, such as the Current Population
Survey of U.S. households and the Current Employment Statistics survey of
nonfarm businesses and government agencies, are designed to provide
monthly, quarterly, and annual historical estimates of labor market
Can the National Longitudinal Surveys be used to produce
estimates for specific U.S. States or other geographic areas?
No. The National Longitudinal Surveys are designed to represent
specific birth cohorts at the national level. The surveys cannot provide
representative estimates for States, counties, or metropolitan statistical
areas. NLS data files with geographic variables are available on a
restricted basis for authorized researchers to use, but the permitted uses
do not include producing estimates for States or other geographic areas.
The permitted uses of NLS geographic variables include linking respondents
with publicly available information about their local labor markets and
communities, identifying instances of geographic migration, or estimating
statistical variance more precisely by accounting for the effects of the
geographic clustering in the NLS sample designs.
Can the National Longitudinal Surveys be used to produce
estimates for specific industries or occupations?
No. All of the National Longitudinal Surveys collect information about
the industries and occupations in which respondents work, but the surveys
are not suited for producing estimates of industry or occupational
employment or wages. The National Longitudinal Surveys only represent
specific population groups based on their year of birth, rather than the
entire population across all age groups. Other BLS surveys, such as the
Current Population Survey, Current Employment Statistics survey,
Occupational Employment Statistics survey, and National Compensation
Survey, are designed to provide estimates for specific industries or
How to Obtain NLS data
Researchers can obtain NLS public-use data files and documentation for
free at NLSinfo.org.
How to Obtain NLS Documentation and Publications
NLS User Services at the Ohio State University Center for Human
Resource Research (CHRR) distributes a variety of NLS documentation
designed to inform the research community on the content and current
status of the surveys. They offer general publications, technical manuals,
and user's guides that are available to the public. Those wishing more
information on NLS documentation should visit the NLS
Documentation Center or contact: NLS
User Services (E-mail: email@example.com)
Many NLS publications are available online in Portable Document Format
(PDF) at the NLS
Publications Center Work and Family reports, NLS Discussion Papers,
and several reports on youth labor are available. In addition, the
quarterly NLS newsletter is also available in PDF at NLSnews.htm.
What are the scheduled release dates for NLS data?
The NLSY79 public-use files that include data from round 1 (1979)
through round 27 (2016-2017) are now available. The round 27 confidential files will be available by the end of February 2019.
The NLSY97 public-use files that include data from round 1 (1997-1998)
through round 17 (2015-2016) are now available. The round 17 confidential files are also
available. The files that include public use data from round 18
(2017-2018) and round 18 confidential files will be available in 2020.
The NLSY79 Child and Young Adult public-use files that include data
collected from 1986 to 2014 are available for researchers to use.
The public-use files for the NLS of Older Men that include data from
1990 and all prior years, the NLS of Young Men that include data from 1981
and all prior years, and the NLS of Mature Women and Young Women that
include data from 2003 and all prior years are available for researchers to use. No future collection
of these cohorts is planned.
After the field period ends, data must be processed before it can be
released. Information on field periods is found below:
NLSY97 NLSY79 NLSY79 Child and Young Adult
What are the Confidential NLSY Geocode Data?
To protect respondent confidentiality, the NLS public-use files do not
include geographic variables such as state, county, and metropolitan area.
Such variables, when combined with the rich longitudinal records of
respondents' significant life events, would create an unacceptable risk
that someone could use the data to identify individual respondents.
Instead, BLS has established a licensing system through which legitimate
researchers at universities and other research organizations in the United
States can use NLS data with geographic information at their own
facilities, provided that the research project and physical and electronic
security measures described in the NLS geocode application are approved by
NLSY79, NLSY79 Young Adult or NLSY97 Geocode files include the state,
county, and metropolitan area of residence for each respondent in each
survey year. Geocode data is also available for any of the Original
How to Request Access to the NLSY79, NLSY79 Young Adult,
and NLSY97 Geocode Data
To protect the confidentiality of respondents, the Bureau of Labor
Statistics (BLS) only grants access to geocode files for researchers in
the United States who agree in writing to adhere to the BLS
confidentiality policy and whose projects further the mission of BLS and
the NLS program to conduct sound, legitimate research in the social
sciences. Applications from
abroad cannot be accepted. Applicants must provide a clear statement
of their research methodology and objectives and explain how the geocode
data are necessary to meet those objectives. Researchers who are granted
access to NLS geocode files may use them at their own facilities, provided
that the facilities meet BLS security requirements. More.
The geocode application document is available online at www.bls.gov/nls/geocodeapp.htm.
How to Request Access to the NLSY Zip Code and Census
tract files and the NLSY97 School Survey Data
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has opportunities available on a
limited basis for researchers from colleges and universities, government,
and eligible nonprofit organizations to obtain access to BLS data files
not available on public-use or geocode files. These confidential files are
available for use only through the BLS Restricted Data Access
program on statistical research projects approved by BLS. The files may
be accessed at the BLS National Office in Washington, DC or in a Federal
Statistical Research Data Center (FSRDC). Access to data is subject to
the availability of BLS and FSRDC space and resources. These data files
The Zip Code and Census Tract files:
NLSY79 and NLSY97 respondents. Geocode data with zip code or census
tract variables included.
The 1996 NLSY97 School Survey:
All public and private
schools with a 12th grade in the 147 nationally representative primary
sampling units (PSUs) used for the NSLY97 sample construction. School
characteristics specifically targeted to gain information on
The 2000 NLSY97 School Survey: Sample of all schools in the
original 1996 NLSY97 school survey. In addition, vocational education
school in the PSUs are included in the sample. Where NLSY97 respondents
have moved to secondary schools with a 12th grade outside the 147 PSUs,
those schools also are included.
For more information about how to request access to these and other
confidential data files, please see BLS
Restricted Data Access at www.bls.gov/bls/blsresda.htm.
How to Request Access to the NLS Original Cohorts
Please note there is a different process for obtaining confidential
data about the original cohorts than the standard Geocode application used
for the NLSY79, NLSY79 Young Adult, and NLSY97 cohorts. Information about
the Original Cohorts Geocode data can be found at www.bls.gov/nls/origcohortgeo.htm.
What steps does the NLS program take to protect respondent
The NLS program takes its legal and ethical obligations to protect the
confidentiality of respondents very seriously. Without the trust and
cooperation or respondents, the NLS program could not continue to be such
a rich source of data for researchers and policymakers. More information
about protecting the confidentiality of NLS respondents is available at:
Why is the respondent ID important and where can I find
The respondent identification variable permits users to merge other
variables for individual respondents. For instance, if a user forgets to
select a variable needed for analysis or later decides to add more
variables, the respondent ID allows the user to merge the newly extracted
variables with those extracted previously. For this reason, users should
include the respondent ID in their list of variables each time they
extract NLS data.
The respondent ID appears in the first round of data for each NLS
cohort. This is variable R00001.00 in each of the cohorts, except for the
Child and Young Adult data files, where the respondent ID variables are
C00001.00 (for children under age 15) and Y00001.00 (for young adults). A
respondent's assigned ID number remains the same across all survey
How do I link the NLSY79 mothers with their children?
Linking NLSY79 mothers to their children can be done by using the
sequential identification variables for the mother and the child. To
merge the files, save the child ID (C00001.00) and mother ID (C00002.00)
from the NLSY79 Child and Young Adult file. Then save the mother ID
(R00001.00) from the main NLSY79 file. The mother's ID will be the same
in both files. The child ID is provided for all children regardless of
their age in any survey year. The child ID is composed of the first 5
digits of the mother's ID plus a 2-digit code (01-11). This 2-digit code
generally but not always indicates the child's birth order. The child ID
allows users to link children not only with their mothers but also with
any siblings on the NLSY79 Child and Young Adult file. Children with the
same first 5 digits in their IDs have the same mother. Appendices E and F
of the NLSY79 Child and Young Adult User's Guide provide sample SPSSx and
SAS programs to assist users in merging files. See the NLSY79 Child and
Young Adult User's Guide (PDF) on NLSinfo.org.
How do I link NLSY97 youth respondents with their parent
who responded to the Round 1 parent questionnaire?
It is not necessary to link NLSY97 youth variables with parent
variables because the parent variables already are embedded within the
record for each youth. For example, looking only at survey year 1997,
questions that begin with a "Y" were asked of youth respondents.
Questions that begin with a "P" were asked of parents. The parent
variables begin at variable R0541100.
When I extract NLS data, how do I save them as an SPSS
When you set up the extraction, choose to generate SPSS statements.
The extraction software will create an SPSS syntax file named
filename.sps. This contains the data dictionary, variable names, and
variable labels. The software creates another ASCII file with the data,
which is called filename.dat. Use the syntax file to read the data into
the Data Editor.
Go to the folder where the data were extracted and double-click on
filename.sps. This will open two screens in SPSS: the Data Editor and
the Syntax Editor. The Data Editor will be blank. In the Syntax Editor
you should see the data dictionary, variable names, variable labels, some
missing values command, and a descriptives command.
The first line of SPSS syntax is the File Handle statement and it
tells SPSS where to find the filename.dat file. The handle
statement looks something like this: file handle
Specify the path to the .dat
file. Suppose the filename.dat file is on the C: drive, in a folder
called NLSY79, then edit this line to: file handle
On the tool bar of the Syntax Editor you will see the Run button.
Click on this button and choose "All." SPSS will run the syntax file,
which will read the data from the filename.dat file into the Data Editor.
The results of the descriptives command will appear in the SPSS viewer.
Once the data have been read into the Data Editor, you will be able to use
all available SPSS commands.
Also, you may want to think about the missing values command. The SPSS
code produced by the extraction includes a couple of lines telling SPSS
the nonresponse codes (-1 thru -5) values are "missing," and SPSS will not
treat the missing values as valid. The resulting frequencies will match
the codebook. You may want to recode the missing values command to suit
When is the next NLS New User Workshops to teach
researchers how to use the data?
Currently, there are no plans to hold New User Workshops. Information
about a workshop, if funded, will be found here in early spring of each
year. Additional information would be sent out using the BLS e-mail
information system. To subscribe please sign up for e-mail notifications
using the orange "Subscribe to NLS Updates" box found at the left of
Number of Jobs Held in a Lifetime
To determine the number of jobs in a lifetime, one would need data from
a longitudinal survey that tracks the same respondents over their entire
working lives. So far, no longitudinal survey has ever tracked
respondents for that long. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979
(NLSY79), however, has tracked younger baby boomers over a considerable
segment of their lives.
A BLS news release published in March 2015 examined the number of jobs
that people born in the years 1957 to 1964 held from age 18 to age 48.
The title of the report is "Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity,
and Earnings Growth among the Youngest Baby Boomers: Results from a
Longitudinal Survey." The report is available on the BLS web site at: www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf.
These younger baby boomers held an average of 11.7 jobs from ages 18 to
48. (In this report, a job is defined as an uninterrupted period of work
with a particular employer.) On average, men held 11.8 jobs and women
held 11.5 jobs.
From ages 18 to 48, some of these younger baby boomers held more jobs
than average and others held fewer jobs. Twenty-seven percent held 15
jobs or more, while 10 percent held zero to four jobs. For additional
statistics on the number of jobs held, see the tables at: http://www.bls.gov/nls/79r25jobsbyedu.xlsx
One limitation of the NLSY79 is that it does not reflect the labor
market behavior of people who are not in that particular cohort; that is,
people who are older or younger than the baby boomers in the survey or who
immigrated to the United States after the survey began in 1979.
Another way to examine job changing is with statistics on workers'
tenure with their current employer. Such statistics for all workers age
16 and older are available from the Current Population Survey (CPS). For
more information on CPS tenure data, see the web site at www.bls.gov/cps/home.htm.
You also can send e-mail
or call (202) 691-6378.
Repeated Spells of Unemployment
Each month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides unemployment
estimates derived from the Current
Population Survey (CPS), a monthly cross-sectional survey. While the
CPS can provide "snapshots" of labor market behavior, the National
Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) gives valuable insight into
spells of unemployment, particularly repeated spells, that other surveys
cannot identify. Longitudinal surveys track the same individuals over
time and complement the information provided by cross-sectional surveys
like the CPS, giving us a more complete picture of the labor market. The
NLSY79 has tracked the labor market activities of younger baby boomers
over a considerable segment of their lives. The survey includes a
nationally representative sample of people born in the years 1957 to 1964
who were living in the United States when the survey began in 1979.
Estimates from the NLSY79 show that these baby boomers experienced an
average of 5.6 spells of unemployment from age 18 to age 48. Consistent
with CPS estimates that show higher unemployment rates for people with
less education, the NLSY79 shows that people with less education
experienced more unemployment spells over time. High school dropouts
experienced an average of 7.7 spells of unemployment from age 18 to age
48, while high school graduates experienced 5.4 spells and college
graduates experienced 3.9 spells. In addition, nearly one-third of high
school dropouts experienced 10 or more spells of unemployment, compared
with 22 percent of high school graduates and 6 percent of college
graduates. For more information on the number of unemployment spells that
baby boomers in each level of educational attainment experienced from
ages 18 to 48, see the table at: www.bls.gov/nls/nlsy79r25unempbyedu.xlsx.
Just as the CPS estimates show higher unemployment rates for people in
their late teens and early twenties compared with those who are middle
aged, the NLSY79 shows that younger baby boomers experienced fewer
unemployment spells as they aged. On average, these baby boomers
experienced 2.9 spells of unemployment from ages 18 to 24, falling to 1.0
spells from ages 25 to 29, 0.7 spells from ages 30 to 34, 0.4 spells from
ages 35 to 39 and rising slightly to 0.7 from ages 40 to 48. In addition,
more than 8 out of 10 of these baby boomers experienced at least one
spell of unemployment while ages 18 to 24, and nearly half experienced
three spells or more. From ages 40 to 48, nearly 2 out of 3 of these baby
boomers did not experience any unemployment spells, and less than 1 in 10
experienced three or more spells. For more information on the number of
unemployment spells that baby boomers experienced at different stages of
their lives from ages 18 to 48, see the table at: www.bls.gov/nls/nlsy79r25unempbyage.xlsx.
Does BLS have information on the number of times people
change careers in their lives?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) never has attempted to estimate
the number of times people change careers in the course of their working
lives. The reason we have not produced such estimates is that no
consensus has emerged on what constitutes a career change. A few examples
may help to illustrate the difficulty of defining careers and career
changes. Take the case of a BLS economist who is promoted to a management
position. Before the promotion, she spent most of her time conducting
economic research. After the promotion to the management position, she
still may conduct research, but she also spends much more time supervising
staff and reviewing their research, managing her program's finances, and
attending to a variety of other management tasks. This promotion
represents an occupational change from economist to manager, but does it
also represent a career change? It depends on how you define a career
Did a construction worker who decided to start his own home-remodeling
business experience a career change? What about a newspaper reporter who
became a TV news anchor? Each of these examples involves a change in
occupation, industry, or both, but do they represent career changes? Most
people probably would agree that a medical doctor who quits to become a
comedian experienced a career change, but most "career changes" probably
are not so dramatic.
What about the case of a web site designer who was laid off from a job,
worked for six months for a lawn-care service, and then found a new job as
a web site designer? Might that example constitute two career changes?
If not, why not? Is spending six months at the lawn-care service long
enough to consider that a career? How long must one stay in a particular
line of work before it can be called a career?
Until a consensus emerges among economists, sociologists,
career-guidance professionals, and other labor market observers about the
appropriate criteria that should be used for defining careers and career
changes, BLS and other statistical organizations will not be able to
produce estimates on the number of times people change careers in their
Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) worklife estimates do not use NLS
data. The last worklife estimates from the BLS were published in 1986 as
Worklife Estimates: Effects of Race and Education, Bulletin 2254.
(PDF 1.32 MB, 37
I read recently that only 5 percent of people age 65 and
older can afford to retire. Is that true?
From time to time, staff at the Bureau of Labor Statistics are asked
something along the lines of the following question:
"I read in a recent article that, according to the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, out of 100 people that start working at the age of 25, by the
time they turn 65, 60 percent depend on Social Security or charity, 29
percent are deceased, 4 percent can afford to retire and 1 percent is
wealthy. It goes on to say that 95 percent of people age 65 or older
cannot afford to retire. I have been to the Bureau of Labor Statistics
web site and have been unable to find the documentation for this
information. Can you help me locate it?"
A brief search of the Internet does indeed turn up several references
like this that are attributed generally to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,
but none of these references ever cites a specific Bureau of Labor
Statistics report or news release. Neither the Bureau of Labor Statistics
nor any other agency of the U.S. Department of Labor has ever produced any
statistics or reports that support the statement. The statement includes
imprecise language and value judgments that would not meet Bureau of Labor
Statistics quality standards. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics
and other Federal statistical agencies do not define terms like "depend on
Social Security," "afford to retire," and "wealthy."
Several of the assertions in the statement are incorrect or misleading.
For example, research from the Social Security Administration shows that
Social Security was the sole source of income for 21 percent of "units"
age 65 or older in 2012, although Social Security accounted for at least
half of total income for 57 percent of units age 65 or older (See Table
8.A1). (The report defines a unit age 65 or older as either a married
couple living together and at least one spouse was age 65 or older or an
unmarried person age 65 or older.) On average, Social Security accounted
for 35 percent of total income in 2012 for units age 65 or older (see
table 10.1). See the report at www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/statcomps/income_pop55/.
Statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics show that, of
the people who lived to be age 25, about 85 percent of them reached age
65. In other words, the death rate is about 15 percent, not 29 percent.
See the National Center for Health Statistics web site at www.cdc.gov/nchs/deaths.htm.
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Last Modified Date: February 12, 2019