Nearly anything you want to know about Americans is in this survey

It began with one interview, 50 years ago this month

By: Jeff Grabmeier

Published on April 06, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Fifty years ago, on April 11, 1966, a woman from the federal government sat down in the rural home of a 54-year-old man and asked him a bunch of personal questions.

“What were you doing most of last week?” she asked. “How much did you earn last year? Where were you living when you were 15 years old? When do you plan to retire?”

So the questions went, for about an hour, before the woman, who worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, packed her things and left. The man’s identity, and even where he lived, has been kept secret to this day. Not because the man was a spy, or possessed information vital to national security. In fact, he was chosen for the interview simply because he was an average, older working man in the United States.

Neither the man nor the interviewer could have guessed, but they were making history on that April day. They participated in the very first interview in what would become one of the largest, longest-lasting surveys of Americans – the National Longitudinal Surveys of Labor Market Experience (NLS).

The NLS, which is run by The Ohio State University, was originally funded by Manpower Administration and currently financed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It has captured the story of America in interviews of more than 54,000 men, women and children over the past 50 years. The NLS interviews the same people repeatedly every one or two years. Some respondents have been interviewed for 17 years, some for 27 years and some for up to 36 years. So unlike surveys that question different people each time they are done, the NLS gives a glimpse at how individual lives unfold, through adolescence, work, marriage, divorce, unemployment, cultural upheaval and more.

So far there have been seven separate NLS surveys, with three currently ongoing as a partnership between Ohio State and the NORC at the University of Chicago. The oldest respondent in the NLS was born in 1906 and the youngest respondent in 2011 (the youngest respondents take standardized tests). The result is that researchers have information on Americans spanning more than a century. It’s a treasure trove of data that tells us about how Americans live their lives, and how their lives have changed during this turbulent time in the country’s history.

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At the beginning, no one could have dreamed about where the NLS would be today. Its origin dates to 1964, when Herbert Parnes, a professor of economics at Ohio State, was invited by the U.S. Department of Labor to create a research proposal to interview a cohort of middle-aged men. Federal labor officials were concerned about the decline in the proportions of older men, especially African Americans, who were working or seeking employment.

So Parnes helped develop a survey that targeted men aged 45 to 59 who would be interviewed each year for five years. Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research would develop the questions and the Census Bureau would draw the sample and conduct the interviews.

“But this turned out to be only the modest beginning,” Parnes wrote in his memoir A Prof’s Life, in what is certainly a massive understatement.

Once Labor Department officials saw the possibilities, they asked for more surveys. Soon there were four, looking at Older Men (aged 45-59), Young Men (14-24), Mature Women (30-49) and Young Women (14-24). At the urging of Parnes and others, the surveys were expanded to include questions about topics far beyond just the working lives of the participants.

The four original surveys were extended to continue long after the initial five years had passed and three more surveys were added later. Now, after five decades, scientists who want to understand nearly any aspect of American life can turn to the NLS for answers.

How much information is available? If printed out, the data would fill more than a million pages. Sociologists, psychologists, economists, public health researchers and, more recently, geneticists have all turned to the NLS to provide the data for their research.

There is so much researchers can learn. Respondents are asked about their health, their jobs, their incomes, their relationships and lots of other questions that can change from year to year and survey to survey, depending on the life stage of respondents, changes in society and requests of scientists. Some questions can be deeply personal. Some look at the dark side of life: “In the past year, have you attacked someone with the idea of seriously hurting or killing them?” Other questions have a lighter touch. Married respondents in one survey were asked how often they laughed together – a habit that turned out to predict marital stability. A question asking respondents to rate their own health turns out to be a pretty good predictor of health and wellness in later life.

Researchers from around the world have taken these data and turned them into more than 8,500 research papers, journal articles, dissertations and books. The studies explore fascinating topics that are often enticing to journalists. Did you read about the recent research that found natural blondes are as smart as people with other hair colors? That study came from NLS data. The fact that obese people earn less than others? Another finding from the NLS.

* * *

None of this would have been possible without the cooperation of the thousands of Americans who have let NLS interviewers into their homes, or talked to them by phone, year after year. That’s why the leaders of the NLS at Ohio State are celebrating the participants – and their interviewers – at this 50th anniversary of the first interview.

“These participants have contributed a lot to science,” said Elizabeth Cooksey, an Ohio State sociology professor and current director of the Center for Human Resource Research, which helps run the NLS program. “It is amazing how much we have learned from these Americans who have let us be a part of their lives for many years.”

Take, for instance, that 54-year-old man who was the first interviewee in 1966. He was interviewed multiple times for 15 years, the last time in 1981. The NLS promises anonymity to respondents, which is why no one associated with the program will give his name or where he lived.

But his answers to questions give an idea of what his life was like. He was born in 1912 and lived in a rural area with his wife and two youngest children when he was interviewed for the first time. He said he liked his job in the construction industry “very much,” but that his earnings and working conditions were the two factors he liked least about his job. He told his interviewer that he never expected to retire.

His wife died when he was about 60. He owned his own home and had total net assets of $14,700 when he was interviewed in 1981; in 2016 dollars that amounted to $38,344.

At his final interview, the man said he was “very happy” about his housing and standard of living. But he was only “somewhat happy” about his health and feelings overall.

He was right when he said he never expected to retire: He changed jobs at age 69 to become a parking attendant and was still working when he died at age 71, shortly before his 1983 interview would have taken place.

* * *

Although it is not known for sure, it is likely that the same woman from the NLS who conducted that first interview continued to question him for surveys for years to come, said Patricia Rhoton, a research specialist at the CHRR who is the most senior NLS staff member.

All the original interviews were done in person and the interviewers – nearly all of whom were women – were often assigned to the same participants for multiple rounds. If the interviewers had anything in common, it was that they loved talking to people. They had to.

“I don’t think you can underestimate the wide range of conditions that you encounter on these interviews. The interviewers have conducted interviews in every corner of this country. They’ve travelled to remote rural farms and they’ve gone to homes in urban centers,” said Paula Baker, a senior research associate in the CHHR. “They’ve talked to people living in deep poverty and those living in great wealth.”

“We find participants in prisons, in the military, in hospitals, in group homes and gated communities,” Cooksey added. “Our interviewers have even tracked down some respondents who were homeless.”

Not everyone wants to be found again. Rhoton tells the story of one interviewer who went to talk to the widow of a respondent who was reported as deceased at a previous survey.

“It turns out that the guy had told his wife at the earlier interview to say he had died so he wouldn’t have to do the survey,” Patricia Rhoton said. “But now he was retired and was willing to talk again.”

That kind of story is the exception, though. Many respondents looked forward to seeing the interviewers. Some baked cookies. Some invited their interviewers to birthday parties and graduations.

“The interviewers have had to strike a balance. They have to engage the respondents, many of whom they have seen over many years. But they also have to maintain a professional distance so they don’t influence the responses,” Baker said.

The researchers recognize that for respondents, the experience of talking about so many intimate life details for a decade or more is bound to have an impact on their lives. Many respondents have said how much participating in the NLS was actually life-changing.

Patricia Rhoton remembers one woman who wrote a thank you letter to the NLS for including her in the survey. She said that the experience of having someone ask her the same questions over time made her aware of how her life was progressing.

“She said the interviews made her realize that if she wanted to accomplish certain goals in life, she had to start working toward them. She learned that what she was doing at any particular interview would have an impact on her life in the future,” Rhoton said.

She was not alone.

“Many participants felt good that they were part of something bigger than themselves. They know they are contributing to the larger story of America,” said Canada Keck, a senior research associate at CHRR. “Our young adult sample that began in 1986, these people have been participating in the surveys for their entire life. It’s bound to have an impact.”

The NLS will continue to capture the story of America, at least for the next few years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, part of the Department of Labor, recently awarded Ohio State a $52 million, 4.5-year contract to run the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth through November 2019.

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Jeff Grabmeier
614-292-8457 | Email

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