A single week 60 years ago provides the basis for a world of research today
This article was originally published in October 2017.
Partner Investigator in the ARC Life Course Centre and keynote speaker at the 2017 International Life Course Conference on 24–26 October is Professor Alissa Goodman.
Goodman studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics as an undergraduate at Oxford, and completed a Masters in Economics at the University of London. In her early career at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in London UCL, her research interests included studying income distribution and inequality and how this changes over time. This work provided her with the perfect segue to her present role as Principal Investigator for the internationally-renowned National Child Development Study (NCDS) at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, University College London’s Institute of Education. This study affords social science researchers fascinating insights into social change and the extent to which our formative years set the pattern for adult life, all the way through to retirement and beyond.
The NCDS follows the lives of more than 17,500 people born in Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) in a single week in March, 1958. This group, referred to as a cohort, constituted 98.1 per cent of the births for that week, so it required a huge and co-ordinated effort from the original researchers who commissioned the study and from the National Health Service. Over the following years, up until the project participants were aged 16, immigrant children arriving in Great Britain who were born in the same week in March were added to the study, resulting in about 18,500 being part of the cohort sample.
Also known as the 1958 Birth Cohort Study, collects a range of information – on physical and educational development, economic circumstances, employment, family life, health behaviour, wellbeing, social participation, and attitudes – from the participants. To date there have been nine waves of data collected. The most recent wave in 2013 achieved just over 9000 participants – more than half the original cohort size, taking into account deaths and movement of people out of Great Britain in that time. Researchers typically collect the data through a combination of face-to-face interviews, telephone interviews, and paper and online questionnaires.
Once cleaned and documented, the data are freely available to researchers world-wide for non-commercial use.
A recent study using the data, ‘Lifetime poverty and attitudes to retirement among a cohort born in 1958’, shows just how manifoldly disadvantaged the persistently poor are: significant numbers of cohort members who have experienced poverty during their life course are approaching retirement in poor health and with poor mental wellbeing. Fewer have a spouse or partner, and most are renting rather than owning their own homes – with home ownership being a major source of security for this age group. Also, a significant majority of this group have never paid into a pension (pp. 2–3).
Some of Goodman’s research with the 1958 cohort has been into their expectations for retirement. She says, ‘We are interested in how many expect to be working, [and] how many have left the labour market already.’ A new round of data collection, which will build on this information, is due in 2018 as the participants reach their 60th birthdays.
At the 2017 International Life Course Conference, Goodman will discuss the participants’ working life histories from the time they were 18 years old. She says, ‘We can see the lifetime pattern for women and men – which are very different – and we can gauge their income and work status throughout their life, and … how their retirement expectations have been shaped by these things. … The vulnerability of people who have persistently experienced poverty in their adult lives is quite striking.’
She will also tell the conference about an exciting new project to transcribe and analyse 10,000 essays that were written by cohort members when they were 11 years old, in 1969.
The NCDS is unique in the world and the resulting data demonstrates the long reach of childhood circumstances across the life course. Goodman says the intention is to follow the 1958 cohort for as long as possible.
Goodman will be speaking at the 2017 International Life Course Conference, in Sydney, on 24 to 26 October.
2017 International Life Course Conference, information and registration.
Centre for Longitudinal Studies, University College London’s Institute of Education, 1958 NCDS.