Labor Force Status

Labor Force Status

Created Variables

DOI_EMPLOYED: These variables contain the respondent's employment status at each interview date.
DOI_HOURS_WORKED: These variables contain the total hours per week the respondent was working at each interview date.
DOI_RETIRED: These variables indicate whether the respondent reported being retired at each interview date.
DOI_DISABLED: These variables indicate whether the respondent reported being disabled at each interview date
EMPLOYMENT STATUS RECODE: These variables provide a specific employment status in the week before the survey week for the respondent, based on the CPS section, for all years in which that section was included in the survey.
 These variables provide a collapsed category version of the EMPLOYMENT STATUS RECODE variables.

NOTE: See the Work History section for week-by-week variable array information.
NOTE: See description below in this Topical Guide section and NLSY79 Appendix 29: Date of Interview Current Status Variables.


Important Information About Using Labor Force Status Data

  • The CPS section was not included in the 2000-2004 and 2008-present survey years.
  • Respondents can specify the number of weeks, if any, during a gap within or between jobs that they are either looking for work or on layoff. However, specific weeks cannot be determined from this information. In these cases, the "unemployed" status in the status array is assigned to the middle of such a gap and the "out of the labor force" status is assigned to the remaining weeks on each end of the gap. 
  • The DUAL JOB # arrays contain job numbers only in the event that the respondent held more than one job during a given week. If this is not the case, the DUAL JOB # arrays contain a "0" code. The DUAL JOB # arrays do not contain information on other employment statuses such as "unemployed" or "out of the labor force." For more detailed information, refer to the Work Experience section of this guide.
  • Although the "Current Labor Force Status," or CPS, sections of the NLSY79 questionnaires follow the wording and format of questions in the Current Population Survey, be aware that NLS "CPS" sections include questions over and above those asked in the Current Population Survey. Additionally, while NLSY79 interviewer instructions are designed to be completely consistent with those of the CPS, NORC interviewers may be less familiar with CPS methodology and procedures than CPS-trained Census interviewers.
  • Although all respondents were asked the CPS questions concerning activity most of survey week and the CPS job, those age 15 and under in the early survey years were not asked the questions about looking for work,
  • The CPS employer (current/ most recent at date of interview) is the focus of many researchers. It is important to note that, while the CPS employer is usually the first employer, this is not always the case in survey years 1980-92. Discrepancies in the order in which interviewers administered, or respondents reported, employers for Employer Supplements resulted in a relatively small number of cases in 1980 to 1992 for which the CPS employer is not recorded as Job #1, but rather Job #2 or Job #3, etc. The CPS employer can be identified in each year by a "yes or no" variable, which is present for each employer.  A "1 - yes" code indicates the CPS employer. It is possible that an employer that is the CPS employer in one year and remains the CPS employer in the next year will be Job #1 in the first year and Job #2 (or higher) in the second year. In this case, the information for Job #2 in the second year would be a continuation of the information for Job #1 in the first survey year. While in 1979 Job #1 is always the CPS job, in 1993 and after, the CAPI instruments ensure that the CPS job (if one exists) will always be Job #1.

Date of Interview Labor Force Status

A series of date of interview (DOI) status variables (listed at the top of this page) has been created for survey years 1980-2016. They are described in more detail in NLSY79 Appendix 29: Date of Interview Current Status Variables. The absence of the CPS section in the 2000–2004 and survey years since 2008 prevented the creation of a strictly comparable set of ESR variables for all survey years. The date of interview variables (DOI_EMPLOYED, DOI_HOURS_WORKED, DOI_RETIRED, DOI_DISABLED) have been created in order to provide a consistent constructed set of variables from comparable data to represent the respondent's status at each date of interview.

NLSY79 CPS Sections

The CPS sections of the NLSY79 instruments replicate the questions asked in the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) of American households conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the U.S. Department of Labor. The primary purpose of the monthly CPS is to collect up-to-date information about the number of persons in the country who are employed, unemployed, or not looking for work during a given survey week. Results from the CPS surveys, released in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly publication Employment and Earnings, provide detailed information classified by age, sex, race, and a variety of other characteristics, on the employment and unemployment experiences of the U.S. population. In the NLSY79 data, three series of variables provide information on respondents' current and weekly labor force status. A series of variables titled "ACTIVITY MOST OF SURVEY WEEK" (present for 1979-1993) and "EMPLOYMENT STATUS RECODE" (present for 1979-1998 and 2006) reflects the respondent's labor force status during the week before the survey week. The WEEKLY LABOR STATUS array variables contain the labor force status for each week since January 1, 1978. These point-in-time indicators are complemented by a set of summary measures, which provide a count of the total number of weeks a respondent occupied a given labor force status (such as working, unemployed, out of the labor force, in the active Armed Forces). Data are also available on the work experience of respondents' parents, spouses, and other household members.

Survey Week Labor Force Status

The following sets of variables on each respondent's labor force status during the week preceding the survey week are available for the survey years as specified:

1. Activity Most of Survey Week (1979-93): The 'Activity Most of Survey Week' variables reflect each civilian respondent's reply to the survey question "What were you doing most of last week?" "Last week" refers to the full calendar week (Sunday through Saturday) preceding the date of interview. The following seven categories of responses have been coded from each year's survey: 

  1. working
  2. with a job-not at work
  3. looking for work
  4. keeping house
  5. going to school
  6. unable to work
  7. other

Definitions for each of these activities are intended to be consistent with those used in the CPS survey. Table 1 provides the set of instructions provided during one survey year to NORC interviewers for coding respondents' labor market status, while Table 2 gives definitions of key CPS labor force concepts. The main survey week activity question was followed by a second question, which sought to identify those respondents who did some work in addition to a main activity other than working (such as "looking for work" or "going to school"); this follow-up question was asked of all respondents except those who indicated that they were working or were unable to work. It is to these two groups, those whose primary activity during the survey week was working and those who responded that they indeed did some work even though it was not their primary labor force activity, that the series of questions on hours worked was administered.

Table 1. Instructions to NORC Interviewers for Coding NLSY79 Respondents' Labor Force Status

Working: Working for pay at a job or running one's own business or profession (or farm) or working without pay in the family farm or business. Includes:

  • jury duty if the respondent is paid for jury duty
  • respondents working as civilian employees of the Armed Forces or the National Guard
  • respondents not paid with money but paid "in kind" (meals, living quarters, or supplies received in place of cash wages)


  • the following kinds of unpaid work
    1. unpaid work that does not contribute to the operation of a family farm or unincorporated business
    2. unpaid work done for a related member of the household who does not operate a farm or unincorporated business but is, himself, a salaried employee
    3. volunteer work without pay for an organization
  • time for which a respondent is paid while on temporary duty in the Armed Forces Reserves or National Guard

With a Job--Not at Work: Respondents who indicate that, for all or most of the survey week, they were absent from a job or business for such reasons as illness, vacation, bad weather, labor dispute, or temporary or indefinite layoff. This also applies to respondents who were unwilling to cross picket lines even though they were not members of the union on strike.

Looking for Work: Respondents who spent most of the week:

  • trying to establish a business or profession
  • looking for work by engaging in the following kinds of efforts:
    1. registering at a public or private employment office
    2. being on call at a personnel placement office, a nurses' register, temporary office register, or other register
    3. meeting with prospective employers
    4. placing or answering advertisements
    5. writing letters or applications
    6. working without pay to get experience and training
    7. checking with a union or any other organization
    8. visiting locations where prospective employers pick up temporary help

Keeping House: Respondents (male or female) who were primarily engaged with their own home housework during the survey week. This category applies to respondents who say they spent most of their time during the survey week managing or being responsible for the care of their home and for respondents who say their chief activity was the care of their children. It is not necessary for a respondent to be engaged in the actual physical labor of cooking, washing, or cleaning. 

Going to School: Respondents who spent most of their time during the survey week attending any kind of public or private school, including trade or vocational schools in which students receive no compensation in money or kind. Includes:

  • respondents who would have been going to school except that they were temporarily sick or on a short vacation such as spring or winter vacation
  • student nurses who spent most of the time during the survey week attending classes. Excludes student nurses who spent most of their time performing ward or other nursing duties for pay or pay in kind

Unable to Work: Respondents who, because of their own long-term physical or mental illness or disability, are unable to do any kind of work. Physical or mental illness or disability means something specific and not a combination of minor disabilities that normally come with advanced age. The specific illness must be of such severity that it completely incapacitates the individual and prevents him or her from doing any kind of gainful work. This category would not include, for example, a youngster with a mental handicap who is able to help on the family farm. The respondent should be coded "unable to work" only if he or she could not perform any kind of work. Likewise a truck driver who is unable to drive a truck because of a heart condition but who might be able to do less strenuous work should not be coded "unable to work." Excluded are those who are temporarily ill or disabled and who expect to be able to work within six months of the time of interview. If the respondent is reported as ill or disabled and no definite indication is given of the time the illness or disability is expected to last, interviewers are instructed to find out from the respondent (and not to use their own judgment or observation) whether he or she expects to be able to return to work within six months.

Other: Respondents whose activity or status cannot be described by the codes defined above. Includes respondents who report that they are taking it easy, working without pay for a neighbor, doing volunteer work, on summer vacation from school, participating in a work relief program, performing jury duty, only in the Reserves or only on National Guard duty, or participating in a government (Federal, State, or Local) program.

Source: NLS Round 12 Question by Question Specifications. Chicago, IL: NORC-4512, University of Chicago, 1990.

Table 2. Definitions of Key CPS Labor Force Concepts

  • In the Labor Force: All persons in the civilian labor force (described below) and members of the Armed Forces stationed in the United States
  • In the Civilian Labor Force: All civilians classified as either employed or unemployed during the survey week
  • Employed
    1. All civilians who, during the survey week, did any work at all as paid employees in their own business or profession, or on their own farm, or who worked 15 hours or more as unpaid workers in an enterprise operated by a member of the family.
    2. all those who were not working but who had jobs or businesses from which they were temporarily absent because of illness, bad weather, vacation, labor-management disputes, or various personal reasons, whether they were paid for the time off or were seeking other jobs. Excluded are persons whose only activity consisted of work around the house (such as own home housework or painting or repairing own home) or volunteer work for religious, charitable, and similar organizations.
  • Unemployed: All civilians who had no employment during the survey week, were available for work, except for temporary illness, and
    1. had made specific efforts to find employment some time during the prior four weeks
    2. were waiting to be recalled to a job from which they were laid off
    3. were waiting to report to a new wage and salary job scheduled to start within 30 days
  • Out of the Labor Force: All persons who are not classified as employed or unemployed or in the Armed Forces. Includes persons engaged in own home housework, in school, unable to work because of long-term physical or mental illness, retired, and other. The "other" group includes individuals reported as too old or temporarily unable to work, the voluntarily idle, seasonal workers for whom the survey week fell in an off season and who were not reported as looking for work, and persons who did not look for work because they believed that no jobs were available in the area or that no jobs were available for which they could qualify. Persons doing only incidental, unpaid family work (less than 15 hours in the specified week) are also classified as not in the labor force.
Source: Concepts and Methods Used in Labor Force Statistics Derived from the Current Population Surveys. BLS Report No. 463, Series P-23, No. 62, Current Population Reports. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, October 1976.

2. Work for Pay or Profit Last Week (1994-98 and 2006): Beginning in 1994, the CPS section underwent significant changes as outlined later in this chapter. The 'Activity Most of Survey Week' question was replaced with "Last week, did you do any work for pay or profit?" Respondents can answer yes, no, retired, disabled, or unable to work. For those answering no, follow-up questions determine whether the respondent has a job from which he or she is temporarily absent, such as on vacation, sick leave, labor dispute, military duty, and so forth. Follow-up questions also probe for more information about disabilities or other reasons a respondent is unable to work. Note that the previously used follow-up question no longer exists that sought to identify those who did some work in addition to a main activity other than working.

3. Employment Status Recode (1979-98 and 2006): Created variables called 'Employment Status Recode' (ESR) are available for each survey year through 1998 and again in 2006. These variables recode the survey week activity of civilian NLSY79 respondents into labor force status measures consistent with those developed for the CPS. This recalculation not only factors in the respondent's reported survey week activity but also takes into account variables such as hours worked, whether working for pay, whether looking for work, what the respondent is doing to find work, whether and why he or she was absent from a job, and so forth. Added to the seven labor market status categories listed in (1) above is an eighth category, "in the active forces." The algorithm changed in 1994 in an attempt to match the new CPS algorithm as closely as possible.

4. Employment Status Recode-Collapsed (1979-98 and 2006): A collapsed version of ESR is available that classifies all NLSY79 respondents into one of the following four labor market activity categories:

  • employed ("working" or "with a job not at work")
  • unemployed
  • out of the labor force ("keeping house," "going to school," "unable to work," or "other")
  • in the active forces