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Forty years of change: UK’s biggest survey marks its 40th birthday

Released: 28 November 2013 Download PDF

The UK’s biggest survey of how people work marks its 40th birthday this month.

The Labour Force Survey (LFS) has helped paint a picture of the world of work since 1973.

To mark the occasion – and say ‘thank you’ to the millions of people who have taken part – the Office for National Statistics (ONS) looks back at the history of the LFS, and compares labour force data from the early years of the survey with key indicators in 2013.

When the survey began, some 100,000 people were interviewed. Today, more than 200,000 people a year take part, making the LFS the UK’s largest regular survey. Its findings influence a wide range of users, notably the Bank of England, which benchmarks a possible rise in interest rates against an LFS unemployment rate of 7%.

In the early 70s, the first questionnaires were 16 pages long and took place face to face in the homes of the people who were selected to take part. Telephone surveys began in 1984. By 1990, basic laptop computers were being used to gather data by a ‘field force’ of interviewers. In the 70s, the ‘force’ numbered fewer than 100; in 2013, around 600 field interviewers and 200 telephone interviewers regularly work on the LFS.

Back in the 70s, the field force was almost exclusively female. In 2013, male interviewers are in the majority. They’re getting older, too. The average interviewer is now 57with the oldest field interviewer being 79 and the youngest 25. Among our interviewers we have speakers of 25 languages including Swahili, Czech, Russian, Punjabi, Urdu, Polish and Welsh.

How work has changed: the 1970s and 2013

Overall, the number of people over the age of 16 employed hasn’t changed much since the survey first began, but who is working has shifted over the past four decades. Data from the late 1970s shows the percentage of men working has dropped by 11% while in comparison the number of women in employment has grown by 12%.

How we work has also changed. In 1977 the number of people who were employees was 91%. This dropped to 86% in 2013 and coincided with a rise in the number of self employed people, up to 14% from 8% in the 70s.

Meanwhile, the number of men working over 30 hours a week has dropped by 7% and the amount of people with two jobs has doubled since 1977.

But the biggest change is where we work. In 1978 a quarter of the UK workforce was employed in the manufacturing industry; this has dropped to 8% in 2013. This reflected in a shift to the services sector which now accounts for 83% of the work force compared with 63% 35 years ago.

Caron Walker, Director of Collection and Production, at the Office for National Statistics, said: ‘The Labour Force Survey has played a vital role in helping us to understand how people in the UK work. It is an important source of information for policy makers, and helps us understand a changing society. All of us who’ve worked on the survey, past and present, would like to say a big “thank you” to the millions of people who have taken part over the past 40 years.’

Notes to Editors

1. While the survey began in December 1973, consistent data series began in 1977.

2. All percentages from 2013 are calculated from seasonally adjusted numbers from March to May 2013 for the UK.

3. All percentages from 1977 are calculated from non-seasonally adjusted numbers from spring 1977 for Great Britain as this is the earliest date for coverage of readily available data.

Media Contacts
ONS Media Relations
Tel: 0845 6041858 or email

To interview Jamie Jenkins, contact:
Heath Jeffries, Media Relations, 07827 840298,

For further details on the numbers in this release, contact Nick Palmer, LFS, on 01633 455839 or email

Background notes

  1. Details of the policy governing the release of new data are available by visiting or from the Media Relations Office email:

Content from the Office for National Statistics.
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