The Story of Our Lives

Since the '50s, researchers have followed the lives of one group of graduates.


July 25, 2007 — -- 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.

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.

Now in their mid-20s, the participants are settling down, finding jobs, getting married, starting to raise families.

The men were a few years older than the women they married, and the interviews reflect high levels of satisfaction. All these years later, about 60 percent are still in their first marriage, and most have been married for more than 40 years. And they still enjoy a good sex life. Those who went on to college are starting to pull ahead slightly, but there were many exceptions. Hauser has interviewed several during the scores of 50th anniversary high school reunions he is attending these days.

"One of the wealthiest, most popular, most successful members at one of the reunions that I attended is a guy who didn't go beyond high school but stayed and developed a very large commercial farming operation," Hauser said. "He's a leading light in his community, and he didn't go beyond high school."

In general, however, those who continued their education did better than those who didn't, and that includes everything from wealth to health.But 71 of them had died by 1964.

"Several hundred have a child with a serious disability or severe mental illness," Hauser said. For some, no doubt, happy days seem a distant memory.

The men reported being very distracted from their work by family matters, but they seem to have done well anyway. About one-fourth were already in a job they would keep for the rest of their working days. Most would have several employers, but nearly half the men and one-fifth of the women would retain the same job for at least 25 years. Years later, they would describe their work as "satisfying."

Some 174 have died by 1975.

As they enter their mid-50s, the questions are becoming more personal. How are the women dealing with menopause? Quite well, it turns out.

Thoughts begin turning to retirement. Most have prepared well, placing health care coverage and pensions higher on their list of priorities than salary. But they believe their standard of living will drop.

The death rolls now include the names of 588.

Now reaching retirement age, the participants are starting to feel the effects of aging. They're just not quite as quick as they used to be. A little more forgetful, but cognition is still strong. And they're still surprisingly healthy, overall. About 76 percent of the men and 69 percent of the women reported no days spent in bed due to illness or injury in 2004. An amazing 70 percent say they feel better now than 10 years ago.

Most have retired, at least partly, and their fears of not having enough money have proved unfounded. Some 64 percent are "completely" or "very satisfied" with their financial situation. Only 6 percent were "not at all satisfied." Many say their standard of living is actually higher since retirement.

The vast majority own their own homes (93 percent) and 65 percent don't have mortgages.

But there are fewer of them now. More than 1,400 have died.

The project is far from over, and there is much more data in the files than can be included here. So Hauser and the 50 persons who are involved in the project will continue probing those Happy Days veterans during reunions across the state this fall. After all, their story has become our story.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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