Study Purpose

The WLS cohort of men and women, born primarily in 1939, precedes by about a decade the bulk of the baby boom generation, which continues to tax social institutions and resources at each stage of life. For this reason, the WLS can provide early indications of trends and problems that will become important as this larger group passes through its 60s. This is in addition to the value of the WLS in obtaining basic information about the life course as such, independent of the cohort’s vanguard position with respect to the baby boom. Also, the WLS is the first of the large longitudinal studies of American adolescents, and thus it provides the first large-scale opportunity to study the life course from late adolescence through the early/mid-60s, in the context of a complete record of ability, aspiration, and achievement.

Study Description

The WLS is a long-term study of a random sample of 10,317 men and women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 and of their randomly selected brothers and sisters. Survey data were collected from the original respondents or their parents in 1957, 1964, 1975, 1992, 2003, 2011, and 2020 and from a selected sibling in 1977, 1993, 2004, 2011, and 2020. Survey data was collected from the spouses of the graduates in 2004 and the spouses of the siblings in 2005. These data provide a full record of social background, youthful aspirations, schooling, military service, family formation, labor market experiences, and social participation of the original respondents. The survey data from earlier years have been supplemented by mental ability tests (of primary respondents and 2000 of their siblings), measures of school performance, and characteristics of communities of residence, schools and colleges, employers, and industries. The WLS records for primary respondents are also linked to those of three same-sex high school friends within the study population. In 1977 the study design was expanded with the collection of parallel interview data for a highly stratified sub-sample of 2000 siblings of the primary respondents. In the 1992-93 round of the WLS the sample was expanded to include a randomly selected sibling of every respondent with at least one brother or sister, and the content was extended to obtain detailed occupational histories and job characteristics; incomes, assets, and inter-household transfers; social and economic characteristics of parents, siblings, and children and descriptions of the respondents’ relationships with them; and extensive information about mental and physical health and well-being.

The WLS sample is broadly representative of white, non-Hispanic American men and women who have completed at least a high school education. Among Americans aged 50 to 54 in 1990 and 1991, approximately 66 percent were non-Hispanic white persons who completed at least 12 years of schooling. Some strata of American society are not well represented. The WLS sample is mainly of German, English, Irish, Scandinavian, Polish, or Czech ancestry. It is estimated that about 75 percent of Wisconsin youth graduated from high school in the late 1950s — everyone in the primary WLS sample graduated from high school; about seven percent of their siblings did not graduate from high school. Minorities are not well-represented: there are only a handful of African American, Hispanic, or Asian persons in the sample. About 19 percent of the WLS sample is of farm origin, and that is consistent with national estimates of persons of farm origin in cohorts born in the late 1930s. As in the later, large, longitudinal studies of school-based samples, age variation occurs in repeated observations rather than in cross-section. Also, siblings cover several adjoining cohorts: they were born primarily between 1930 and 1948. In 1964, 1975, 1992 and again in 2003, about two-thirds of the sample lived in Wisconsin, and about one-third lived elsewhere in the U.S. or abroad.

Sample Participation

Researchers developed a flowchart that describes the various samples that have participated in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study.

separate report covers detailed information on retention and response rates.

Power Point presentations

For more information, PowerPoint presentations are available: