Wisconsin Longitudinal Study

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More than 100 professors and students at the University of Wisconsin are currently working on the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study and hoping that, in doing so, we will improve the lives of people in Wisconsin and throughout the nation.

All of us working on the WLS are grateful to you for your generous continuing participation in the study.


1957 -- The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, both the Dodgers and the Giants left New York for California, American Bandstand premiered on ABC, The Bridge Over the River Kwai won numerous Academy Awards...  and thousands of men and women in Wisconsin graduated from High School.

These graduates went on to other schools, began jobs, joined the military. They got married, had kids and grandkids, stayed in the state or moved elsewhere. And over the years, over 10,000 of them have been repeatedly interviewed about their interests and experiences, habits and health -- and those surveys have provided the data for the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS).

In the 51 years since this groundbreaking study began, the WLS, housed in the Center for Demography of Health and Aging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has provided policy makers and social science researchers with an unparalleled look at how education, career and family affect adult life.

From its beginnings, the data now known as the WLS have been influential in Wisconsin and beyond. The study began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the Cold War's scientific competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Working with state government, the UW's School of Education surveyed all high school graduates statewide in 1957 to learn their post-graduation plans. The conclusions drawn were the basis for the statewide expansion of Wisconsin's colleges and universities.

The study was revived a few years later when the late UW-Madison sociology professor William Sewell realized its potential value for studying how adolescent educational and economic opportunities are related to success in adult life. New surveys went out to a randomly selected one-third of the original participants -- over 10,000 people -- in 1964, 1975, and again in 1992. In 1977 and 1994, researchers also surveyed participants’ sisters and brothers. The original Class of 1957 participants and one of their siblings, will be invited to participate in the 2010-2011 study.

The quality and depth of data collected by the WLS have made it one of the most influential surveys in American social science over the past thirty years. Studies using the WLS have been cited over one thousand times in dozens of journals, and have influenced both academic study and governmental policy regarding the relationships among education, career and other factors that influence adult success.

Now, as those one-time high school seniors – known as the ‘Happy Days’ cohort, after the popular TV sitcom about Milwaukee’s Class of ’57 – become senior citizens, the WLS is refocusing itself with a new survey, seeking to understand more specifically how a person's entire life influences, and can improve, the aging process.

The new survey will begin in 2010, and is funded by grants to UW-Madison's College of Letters and Sciences from the Office of Behavioral and Social Research of the National Institute on Aging. Over the next few years, the project will carry out over 12,000 in-person interviews and an equal number of questionnaire booklets of study participants. Working on the study are more than 100 investigators, consultants and research assistants. While the work will primarily be done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin alumni and researchers at other universities are also participating and will help analyze the new data.

Planned studies will examine how experiences in childhood, in high school, and throughout adult life influence careers and retirement, family life, health and longevity.


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