They've seen it all, from the "happy days" of the 1950s to the war on terror. Along the way, they launched their own careers, married, raised children, dealt with prosperity and heartbreak, with growing older and death.
Their story is the story of millions of Americans, but there's something different here.
For half a century now, they have been followed by scientists at the University of Wisconsin, who have compiled a unique record of the lives of about 10,000 people who graduated from that state's high schools in 1957.
The Wisconsin Longitudinal Study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging began as a state-sponsored effort to determine the aspirations of high school seniors who were about to enter the work force at a time of great change. The Soviet Union was beating the United States in the space race. The country was in turmoil over racial issues. How could the state adjust its educational system to better serve the young people who would sculpt its future?
The study was conceived as a one-shot deal, and for years afterward the research was all but forgotten. But sociologists at the university finally realized they had the foundation for an extraordinary resource. So over the past few decades they have returned to the group once designated the Happy Days Cohort from the popular television series that captured the spirit of the '50s, asking them to fill in the blanks on everything from masculinity to menopause. The result is a body of work that has contributed to hundreds of research papers and provided a prototype for long-range studies.
So how have they done? Did they prosper? Are they happy and healthy?
"They have done pretty well," said sociologist Robert Hauser, who joined the project in 1969 and now leads it. That's partly because they had a good start. Most came from stable homes, all graduated from high school, many went on to college, and most formed long-lasting relationships. But there's more to it than that.
"There's a lot of luck involved," Hauser said. "There's an awful lot of chance, and variability, in how people's lives develop."
The study is not without its critics. The participants were nearly all white, because that's what Wisconsin was like in 1957, and about 20 percent were raised on farms, but that's what the country was like back then. So they are not necessarily representative of the nation today, but they still tell a dramatic story. The primary research projects, involving telephone and personal interviews, as well as mailed questionnaires, were conducted in 1957, 1964, 1975, 1977, 1993-94, and 2004-06. Their names are confidential, but some have voluntarilly identified themselves as participants Here, all too briefly, is what the work shows.
1957: Congress approves first civil rights bill since Reconstruction, but Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus barred nine black kids from entering a white high school in Little Rock.
These Wisconsin kids graduated into a world that was undergoing massive changes. Many went on to college, but for the men, something else loomed large. The Cold War was raging, and the local draft board was hungry.
More than half the men entered the military, but their timing was right. Their service was between the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
"They managed to avoid war," Hauser said. Happy days indeed.