Labor Force Status

Labor Force Status

Both the Older Men's and Young Men's "Current Labor Force Status" sections collect information on the labor market activity in which respondents were engaged during most of last week. This series replicates 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 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 monthly publication Employment and Earnings, provide detailed information, classified by age, sex, race, and a variety of other characteristics, on the employment and unemployment experience of the U.S. population.

A series of variables are available, for both cohorts, on respondents' labor force status during the survey week. In addition to these respondent-specific variables discussed below, data are available on the work experiences of other family and household members.

Survey Week Labor Force Status

The following three sets of variables are available on each respondent's labor force status during the survey week:

Activity Most of Survey Week: The 'Activity Most of Survey Week' variables reflect each 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. Although coding categories differ by cohort, the following categories of responses have been used to classify data within each cohort: (a) working, (b) with a job--not at work, (c) looking for work, (d) going to school, (e) unable to work, and (f) other. An additional coding category, "retired," is present for all survey years of the Older Men; "keeping house" was added as a coding category for the 1990 Older Men survey.

Definitions for each of these labor market activities are intended to be consistent with those utilized in the CPS. Charts found earlier in this section provide definitions of key CPS labor force concepts; Census interviewers are instructed to use their CPS manual for assistance in coding the current labor force status questions. Due to the fact that Census is responsible for CPS data collection, it is likely that NLS CPS questions are interpreted in a consistent manner.

The main survey week activity question is followed by a second question that seeks to identify those respondents who did any work at all last week in addition to a main survey week non-working activity (such as "looking for work" or "going to school"); this follow-up question is asked of all respondents except those who indicate that they were working or were unable to work.

Employment Status Recode (ESR): ESR is a variable created by the Census Bureau that recodes responses to various employment-related questions into a consistent and more accurate measure of each respondent's survey week labor force activity. A series of decision rules, depicted in Table 4.18.1 below, cluster information collected from ten questions dealing with, for example, main survey week activity, hours worked, whether/why absent from a job, job search activity, occupation, class of worker, etc. into positive or negative indicators of "working," "with a job but not at work," and "unemployed (looking for work)." In order to be assigned to one of these recodes, a respondent must display at least two positive and no negative indicators that he belongs to one of these groups; otherwise he is considered to belong to one of the "not in the labor force" categories. More detail on the decision pathways used to assign each recode and on exceptions to the general rules presented below can be found in "Standardized Employment Status Questions and Recodes" (Census 1977).

ESR is available for all survey years except for the years in which telephone interviews were conducted. Information on creation inconsistencies can be found in the User Notes below as well as within each cohort's codebook.

Labor Force Group Variables: Check items present in the questionnaires of the Older and Young Men provide a series of summary variables indicating the labor force group to which a respondent belonged, e.g., working, looking for work, unable to work, retired, or in the armed forces. Variables which compare current survey year's labor force group with that of the previous survey year and which link labor force group to other variables such as school enrollment, presence of children under age 18, marital or retirement status are available for select survey years and cohorts.

Survey Instruments: Questions on main survey week activity are located at the beginning of the "Current Labor Force Status" sections of each questionnaire. The labor force group variables appear as check items throughout the questionnaires.

Documentation: Each year's Interviewers' Reference Manual provides detailed instructions for interviewers on how to code this section of the questionnaire in a manner consistent with CPS. Decision rules that guide Census in its creation of the 'Employment Status Recode' variables can be found in "Attachment 5: Standardized Employment Status Questions and Recodes (Census 1977)" in the Codebook Supplements.

Table 1. Employment Status Recode Creation: Older and Young Men

Ten Employment-Related Questions Used to Create ESR/MLR

Major activity

Whether worked last week

Hours worked

Whether absent from job

Why absent from job

Whether looking for work

What doing to find work

Reason could not take job (availability for work)


Class of worker

Positive indicators
  1. Working last week
  2. 15+ hours worked
  3. Class of worker entry other than "never worked"
  4. 1-14 hours worked combined with class of worker entry other than "without pay"
  1. Absent from job or business
  2. Class of worker entry other than "without pay" or "never worked"
  3. Reason for absence from work other than "layoff" or "new job to begin in 30 days"
  1. Absent from job or business
  2. Reason for absence is "layoff" or "new job to begin in 30 days"
  3. Looking for work
  4. Any entry in class of worker (including "never worked" and "without pay") 
  5. Method of looking for work entered other than "nothing"
Negative indicators
  1. 1-14 hours worked combined with class of worker = "without pay"
  1. Reason for absence from work is "layoff" or "new job to begin in 30 days"
  2. Working last week
  3. Any hours worked
  4. Class of worker is "without pay"
  1. Method of looking for work is "nothing"
  2. Not available for work
  3. Reason for absence from work is "other" (not "layoff" or "new job to begin in 30 days") 
  4. Working last week
  5. Any hours worked
Source: Census Bureau. "Standardized Employment Status Questions and Recodes." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, April 1977. This document is distributed by CHRR as "Attachment 5: Employment Status Recodes" and is an important source of information on exceptions to the general indicators listed above.


User Notes

The various codes that categorize activities for those respondents not in the labor force vary across survey years and cohort. Tables 2 and 3 present the coded values by survey year for the Older and Young Men ESR variables.

Table 2. Employment Status Recode Codes: Older Men

  1966 1967 1968 1969 1971 1976 1981 1990
Working 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
With a Job, Not at Work 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
Unemployed 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
In School 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4
Retired 5 5 5 5 5 5 5 5
Unable to Work 6 6,71 6 6,71 6,71 6 6 6
Blank 7   7          
Other 8 8 8 8 8 7 7 8
Keeping House               7
Never Worked 0 0 0 0 0      
Noninterview (Blank All Years)
1 Two codes were used in these surveys to distinguish between years. For example, the 1967 "Unable to Work" code was separated into "6-Unable to work in 1967 only" and "7-Unable to work in 1966 and 1967."

Table 3. Employment Status Recode Codes: Young Men

  1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971 1976 1981
Working 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
With a Job, Not at Work 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
Unemployed 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
In School 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4
Blank 5 5 5 5 5 5 5 5
Unable to Work 6 6 6 6 6 6 6 6
Blank 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 7
Other 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8
Never Worked 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Noninterview (Blank All Years)


User Notes

While the "Current Labor Force Status" sections of NLS questionnaires follow the wording and format of those asked in the CPS, users should be aware that NLS CPS sections include additional questions over and above those found in the CPS surveys.

ESR has been traditionally used by many researchers to restrict the sample of those respondents interviewed in a given survey year. Users should be aware that this procedure cannot be used with data from the 1990 Older Men cohort and should consult the codebook notation for ESR.

Researchers examining employment over time can construct a loose approximation of ESR by using positive responses to the following three questions: (1) Did you do any work at all last week? (2) Did you have a job or business from which you were temporarily absent? and (3) Have you been looking for work? A respondent, for example, who is coded "Other" on 'Activity Most of Survey Week' but has a job from which s/he was absent would be reclassified as "working."