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Major or usual activity in past 12 months

Codes and Frequencies

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MAJACT reports the "usual activity" (1969-1981) or "major activity" (1982-1996) the person had engaged in for the preceding twelve months.


In 1969-1981, the framing of the question varied according to the age and sex of the person.


In particular:

Males or Females, age 6-16 years: "What was [person] doing most of the past 12 months--going to school or doing something else?"
Males, age 17+ years: "What was [person] doing most of the past 12 months--working or doing something else?"
Females, age 17+ years:"What was [person] doing most of the past 12 months--keeping house, working, or doing something else?"
Males or Females, age 45+ years, neither working, nor keeping house, nor going to school: "Is [person] retired?"
Males or Females, retired: "Did he retire because of health?" If the answer to the question was "yes," then the interviewer marked the "Retired, heath" box on the survey. Otherwise, the interviewer marked the "Retired, other" box on the survey.


In 1982-1996, only persons 18 years and older were questioned, and all persons were asked the same question:

"What was [person] doing most of the past 12 months: working at a job or business, keeping house, going to school, or something else?"


The terminology used in labeling this variable in the Codebooks changed from "usual activity" (1969-1981) to "major activity" (1982-1996). Because the survey questions used to elicit the information did not use either of these expressions, this semantic shift had minimal or no effect on the comparability of the variability over time.

There are a number of comparability issues:

Universe Change: The universe for 1969-1981 is all persons age 6+ years, while the universe for 1982-1996 is all persons age 18+ years. This has two effects:

  • For 1969-1981, persons age 6-16 years may appear in the categories "going to school" (30) and "something else" (50), while for 1982-1996, only persons age 18+ years will appear in these categories.
  • For 1969-1981, persons age 17 years may appear in the category "Working" (10), while for 1982-1996, only persons age 18+ years will appear in this category.

Category Changes: There are several difference in the categories used in 1969-1981 survey questions compared to those used in 1982-1996 survey questions:

  • In the 1969-1981 survey, there was a specific set of questions for males and females age 6-16 years, while this set of questions was absent in the 1982-1996 survey.
  • In the 1969-1981 survey, there was a specific set of questions for males or females, age 45+ years, who were retired. This set of questions is absent in the 1982-1996 survey.
  • As noted in the previous bullet point, in 1969, there was a specific set of questions for males or females, age 45+ years, who were retired. However, the 1969 public access files do not contain the detailed information about retired persons present in 1970-1981. The 1969 information about males or females, age 45+ years, who were retired, is fully contained in the category "Retired (45+ years)" (40). Researchers can, for 1970-1981, combine "Retired - Health (45+ years)" (41) and "Retired - Other (45+ years)" (42), into a single category fully comparable with 1969's "Retired - Health (45+ years)" (40).
  • There were no follow-up questions about retirement for 1982-1996, and all persons who were neither working nor keeping house nor going to school were grouped together under the heading "something else." To achieve comparability before and after 1982, researchers must similarly combine retirees (codes 40-42) with those "doing something else" (code 50) in the earlier years.
  • In 1969-1981, the skip patterns of the questions associated with MAJACT excluded males from answering questions about "keeping house." However, in 1982-1996, it was possible for males to answer that their major activity in the past 12 months was keeping house. Thus, the category "keeping house" (20) may, in 1982-1996, include both males and females, while "keeping house" (21) for 1969-1981 includes only females.

In addition, researchers should be aware that the difference in question wording before and after 1982 might have affected the distribution of respondents' answers.


Prior to 1994, the March Current Population Survey included similarly phrased, sex-specific questions on major activity during the previous week. The Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded that such phrasing--which presumes that men's normative activity is paid employment and that women's normative activity is keeping house--resulted in underreporting of paid employment by women.

Information on the person's major activity during the preceding year was used to frame a series of questions on limitations of activity (LATOTAL) due to health problems, for 1969-1996.


  • 1967-1981: Persons age 6+.
  • 1982-1996: Persons age 18+.


  • 1967-1996