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History of the National Longitudinal Surveys Program

Original Cohorts: The National Longitudinal Surveys of Labor Market Experience began in the mid-1960s, sponsored by The Office of Manpower Policy, Evaluation, and Research of the U.S. Department of Labor.  The NLS was to conduct longitudinal studies of the labor market experiences of four population groups, Older Men, Mature Women, Young Men, and Young Women, who are now collectively referred to as the Original Cohorts.  The initial plan called for six interviews over a 5-year period with a nationally representative sample of approximately 5,000 individuals in each cohort.  As the 5-year period ended, relatively high retention rates and the widespread interest generated by these data led to the decision to continue the surveys.  The Older Men and Young Men cohorts were administered until 1990 and 1981, respectively.  The Mature Women and Young Women cohorts were discontinued after the 2003 interviews. See Original Cohorts Data Overview for more information.

NLSY79: In 1977, the Department of Labor decided to begin a new longitudinal study of young men and women.  This study would replicate the surveys of young men and women that began in the 1960s.  Conducted out of the Employment & Training Administration (ETA), the new longitudinal study would help policymakers and researchers evaluate the expanded employment and training programs for youths legislated by the 1977 amendments to the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).  In the mid-1980s, the ETA began to consider ending the survey, as the degree to which it fit ETA’s mission declined.  However, BLS Commissioner Janet Norwood noted the high value for research of continuing the survey and negotiated its transfer to the BLS.  In 1986, sponsorship of the NLS was taken over by BLS.

The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) began with a sample of 12,686 young men and women who were born in the years 1957 to 1964.  The sample members were ages 14-21 as of December 31, 1978.  Data collection for the NLSY79 was conducted annually from 1979 to 1994 and has been conducted biennially in even-numbered years since 1994.  The original sample included supplemental samples of Black or African American, Hispanic, economically disadvantaged non-Black/non-Hispanic, and youth in the military.  In other words, members of these four groups composed a larger share of the total NLSY79 sample than their share of the U.S. population that was born in the years 1957 to 1964 and living in the U.S. in 1979.  The reason for selecting these supplemental samples was to facilitate statistical analyses of these groups.  Without these supplemental samples, the sizes of these four groups in the NLSY79 sample would not have been sufficiently large to conduct statistically reliable analyses.  The military supplemental sample was discontinued after the 1984 survey, but members of the main NLSY79 sample who joined the military after the survey began in 1979 have continued to be interviewed during their military service.  The economically disadvantaged non-Black/non-Hispanic supplemental sample was discontinued after the 1990 survey.  See NLSY79 Data Overview for more information.

NLSY79 Child and Young Adult: In 1986, a separate survey was begun of children born to female NLSY79 respondents.  In addition to the wealth of information about the mothers that is obtained from the NLSY79, the NLSY79 Child survey includes assessments of each child, as well as additional demographic and developmental information collected from either the mother or child.  The NLSY79 Child survey is includes a battery of cognitive, social, emotional, and physiological assessments, as well as age-appropriate questions on attitudes, aspirations, and psychological well-being.  Beginning in 1994, children age 15 and older completed an interview modeled on the main NLSY79 questionnaire.  These NLSY79 Young Adults are asked about their schooling, training, work experiences, expectations, health, dating, fertility, marital histories, and household composition, among other topics.  See NLSY79 Child and Young Adult Data Overview for more information.

NLSY97: In 1997, the newest NLS cohort was begun with the collection of data from a sample of 8,984 youths who were born in the years 1980 to 1984.  The sample members were ages 12-16 as of December 31, 1996.  This survey, called the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), was fielded annually through Round 15 (2013) and has been fielding biennially since and includes supplemental samples of Black or African American and Hispanic youths.  See NLSY97 Data Overview for more information.

NLS Data Users

The NLS data are widely used by government agencies, universities, think tanks, news media, foundations, and other private organizations.  Modules within the NLS have been sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense (specifically the ASVAB), the Employment and Training Administration/U.S. Department of Labor, the National Institute on Aging, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Social Security Administration, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, among many others.  The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) has provided funds for the NLSY79 Child since its inception in 1986.  The U.S. Department of Education has provided funding for transcript collection.  Given its broad scope, the NLS has attracted research interest in a wide variety of fields.  As new data are collected and made available to the public, new research possibilities abound. Each month the NLS receives approximately 65 information requests and opens approximately 10 new Geocode applications.

NLS contractors maintain a searchable electronic index.  Annotated citations for research using the NLS cohorts are available for review via an Internet bibliographic database (  There are over 4,000 published journal articles and over 1,300 Ph.D. dissertations listed, in addition to newspaper articles, book chapters and working papers.  The continued relevance of the NLS for the research community, and for policymakers at the Federal, State, and local levels, is evident in the high number of citations added to the list each year.

Last Modified Date: January 19, 2021