The General Social Survey: New Data Overview

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By Pascale Beaupré, Marcel Béchard, Heather Dryburgh, Catherine Trainor

What is the GSS?
Sample design
Life course perspective
Current or upcoming GSS cycles
GSS 2006 family transitions, cycle 20
Analytic work
Navigating the birth or adoption of a child: Main findings
Navigating couple dissolution: Main findings
GSS 2007 family, social support, and retirement, cycle 21
Summary of GSS 2007 content
GSS 2008 social networks, cycle 22
Twenty years of GSS



This paper highlights the latest developments and rationale behind recent cycles of the General Social Survey (GSS). Starting with an overview of the GSS mandate and historic cycle topics, we then focus on two recent cycles related to families in Canada: Family Transitions (2006) and Family, Social Support and Retirement (2007). Finally, we give a summary of what is to come in the 2008 GSS on Social Networks, and describe a special project to mark 'Twenty Years of GSS'.

What is the GSS?

The GSS is a key source of social information in Canada. The GSS program, established in 1985, conducts telephone surveys from representative samples selected across the 10 provinces. The original design of the GSS was one of repeated cycles, usually every five years, on key social issues. These issues have included education, health, time use, victimization, and technology among others (table 1). The return to these issues every five years allows trend and cohort analyses for monitoring changes in the social conditions and well-being of Canadians over time. In addition, the GSS gathers data on specific social policy issues of current or emerging interest based on consultations with policy departments, researchers and academic experts.

Table 1
GSS cycle topics
Topics Cycle year (Cycle number)
1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
Health 1985(1) 1991(6) ... ... ...
Time use 1986(2) 1992(7) 1998(12) 2005(19) ...
Victimization 1988(3) 1993(8) 1999(13) 2004(18) 2009 (23)
Education, work, retirement 1989(4) 1994(9) 2002(16) 2007(21) ...
Family 1990(5) 1995(10) 2001(15) 2006(20) 2007 (21)
Social support and aging 1985(1) 1991(6) 1996(11) 2002(16) 2007 (21)
Access to and use of ICT 2000(14) ... ... ... ...
Social engagement 2003(17) 2008(22) ... ... ...
... not applicable

Sample design

The survey collects data over a twelve month period from the population living in private households in the 10 provinces. For all cycles except Cycles 16 and 21, the population aged 15 and older has been sampled. Cycles 16 and 21 sampled persons aged 45 and older. Interviews last approximately 45 minutes.

The GSS sample size was approximately 10,000 persons until 1999 when the sample size was increased to 25,000. With a sample of 25,000, basic estimates are available at both the national and provincial levels. Depending on the survey topic, the increased sample size may also be sufficient to produce estimates for small population groups such as persons with disabilities, people in visible minorities and seniors.

Life course perspective

The life course perspective is a framework that has been used to guide the development of the most recent GSS cycles. In response to concerns and needs expressed by policy departments to look less at states of being at one or more points in time, and more at life transitions and processes of change in the shifting social, historical, and economic Canadian context, the GSS has identified transitions and life course trajectories important for understanding each survey topic.

The life course perspective starts with the view that the life course is itself a social structure, characterized by transitions and trajectories. The individual's life course is affected both by the social structures that constrain it, and the individual choices that are made over time. Social structures include social norms and expectations, institutions, and legal and governmental regulations that form the context for the life course. Thus this perspective accounts for the social structures that can be affected by government policy and programs, in relation to the choices individuals make over the life course.

The term "linked lives" has been used in reference to the many ways that individuals live their lives interconnected and interdependently with others. This notion is critical for the GSS, especially as this survey explores the relationship between the private world of home and family and the more public world of work and community. The importance of social connections cannot be understated, in particular, at periods of transition when choices are made in concert with spouse and family.

The life course perspective is particularly suited to data that follows respondents over time. The GSS is not longitudinal; however, retrospective data can be successfully used in similar ways if incorporated into the design of the questions. The approach for applying a life course perspective in the development of new GSS cycles is to take into account key life course trajectories, transitions, linked lives, and life choices in relation to the cycle topic.

Current or upcoming GSS cycles

At any one time, four cycles of the GSS are underway at various stages of the survey process (figure 1). In this paper we describe the content of cycles 20 to 22.

Figure 1: Current GSS cycles and timelines


Figure 1: Current GSS cycles and timelines

GSS 2006 family transitions, cycle 20

Family Transitions is the core topic for the 2006 GSS. Over the past few decades, important social, economic and demographic changes have transformed the lives of Canadians and their families: the decline and control of fertility, the legalization of divorce, an increase in common-law unions, and the entry of women in huge numbers into the labour market. Given these changes and trends, the 2006 GSS content addresses the question of how young Canadian families are negotiating key transitions in the early years of family life. The nature and timing of transitions such as the establishment and advancing of a career, moving out of the parental home, marriage or common-law union, accumulating assets such as a car or house, family formation and the dissolution of a common-law union or marriage, may be changing as the Canadian economic and social context changes.

Cycle 20 (GSS 2006) is the fourth cycle of the GSS to collect data on families (the first three cycles on the family were in 1990, 1995 and 2001). Cycle 20 covers much the same content as previous cycles on families with some sections revised and expanded. The data enable analysts to measure conjugal and fertility history (chronology of marriages, common-law unions, and children), family origins, children's home leaving, fertility intentions, child custody as well as work history and other socioeconomic characteristics. Questions on financial support agreements or arrangements (for children and the ex-spouse or ex-partner) for separated and divorced families have been modified. Also, sections on social networks, well-being and housing characteristics have been added.

The analytic file for GSS 2006 is now available in Statistics Canada's Research Data Centres. The Public Use Microdata File has been released at the end of March 2008.

Analytic work

Five years ago when the 2001 GSS collected data on Canadian families, its major findings showed that compared to previous years, divorce was on the rise, common law unions were more prevalent and marriage seemed to be losing ground. Despite these changes, the vast majority of Canadians continue to enter a common-law union or a marriage. The rise in divorce and separation, however, means that families look different now than they did in the past, with more stepfamilies and lone-parent families than before. As was the case for previous cycles on the family, a table on family structures was released1 in June 2007, which provides a regional snapshot of the forms and characteristics of Canadian families in 2006 and 2001.

An analytic report entitled Navigating Family Transitions: Evidence from the General Social Survey2 was released at the same time, focusing on two key transitions. First, it analyzes the experiences of respondents who have had or adopted a child in the five years prior to the survey, and second, it examines the experiences of those who have gone through a separation or divorce during that same period. For both transitions, the analysis provides a brief description of those who experienced the change, then explores the services and resources that were used to help families as they moved through these transitions. The following highlights are based on this article.

Navigating the birth or adoption of a child: Main findings

  • Since 2001, parents are increasingly using formal support services during a pregnancy or after the birth or the adoption of a child

A variety of services and information is available to parents to help prepare them for parenting. For example, pre-natal services are designed to help parents prepare for childbirth and increase well-being through pregnancy. Other services, such as help for nursing mothers, are available to help with the period after childbirth. Among persons who had or adopted a child between 2001 and 2006, a total of 66% received at least one type of formal service or support. The proportion of parents who indicated having received some formal support increased annually from 59% in 2001 to 71% in 2006. According to data from the GSS, 9 out of 10 persons who received such services rated the help received as useful.

  • More fathers are taking time off from work for the birth or adoption of a child

Although more and more parents are benefiting from parental leave, women are still more likely than men to take any type of a leave of absence from work for a birth or adoption. In fact, in the five years prior to the survey, a total of 88% of mothers took a leave of absence from their jobs because of the birth or adoption of a child, compared with a total of 45% of fathers who did so.

Looking at each year separately, from 2001 to 2006 the proportion of mothers who took a leave from work because of the birth or adoption of a child remained stable. However, the proportion of fathers who did so increased annually from 38% in 2001 to 55% in 2006. This increase may be explained by the extended length of time offered for benefits (now that Canadian parents can receive up to 35 paid weeks of leave, mothers are perhaps more inclined to "share" some of the leave time with their spouse or partner) and the federal program for choice regarding child care (effective since July 2006).

The type of leave taken varies according to the parent's gender. While the large majority of mothers who had or adopted a child between 2001 and 2006 took maternity leave (81%), fewer than one in 10 fathers took paternity leave3. A quarter of fathers took parental leave, but instead of paternity or parental leaves, many fathers allotted themselves a few days of vacation or other paid (or unpaid) personal leave. In fact, 38% of fathers drew on their annual leave and 19% took unpaid leave because they had, or adopted a child.

  • Mothers take time off from work for a longer period of time than fathers after a pregnancy or an adoption

The timing for returning to work after a leave of absence for the birth or adoption of a child varies for mothers and fathers. An estimated 85% of fathers who took leave of some type to care for their child between 2001 and 2006 were off from work for less than six months, the majority of whom returned to work within a month following the child's birth or adoption. By contrast, mothers took leave from work for a longer period: a third of mothers returned to work within 6 to 11 months and nearly half returned to work between 12 to 47 months after the birth or adoption of the child.

Of course, the length of time and the type of leave taken to care for the child are related. Parents who returned to the labour market more quickly had taken annual or unpaid leave or had benefited from a program offered by the employer. In contrast, parents who stayed home longer to care for the child mostly benefited from maternity or paternity leave or parental leave.
  • The transition between leave and returning to work more stressful for mothers

While most fathers rated the transition between leave for a birth or adoption and the return to work as being not too stressful or even not at all stressful, 62% of mothers indicated that the transition between leave and returning to work was stressful, and about 1 in 5 of these mothers found it very stressful. Despite numerous measures implemented by government to support parents, concerns persist, particularly with regard to accommodating professional and family schedules. Nearly half of surveyed parents mentioned work-family balance as a primary source of stress associated with their return to work. Other sources of stress related to the family (20%), to work (12%) and to child care (12%).

Navigating couple dissolution: Main findings

  • Divorce and separation: Common law couples more likely to break up

Of the approximately 2 million Canadians who ended a union between 2001 and 2006, just over half ended a marriage, either through separation or divorce, and just under half left a common-law relationship. This was despite the fact that common-law relationships represented 17% of all couples in 2006. People in common-law relationships that ended between 2001 and 2006 had remained together for an average of 4.3 years. This was 10 years less than the average duration of 14.3 years for marriages that ended.

  • Majority of common-law partners do not use formal services during separation

The data showed that an individual's use of formal services for separation and divorce varied substantially according to the type of union they were ending. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of those who left a common-law relationship between 2001 and 2006 did not make use of any formal program or service during the breakup. This compares with only 31% of people who recently separated from a marriage, and 18% of those recently divorced.

  • Those with children are more likely to use services

Persons who had dependent children with an ex-spouse or ex-common-law partner were much more likely to use every type of service - legal, social, and other services - than those without dependent children. Overall, 74% of individuals with dependent children used a formal service of some kind, compared to only 45% of those who separated or divorced without dependent children.

The data showed mixed results for parents as they tried to make arrangements for their children in the aftermath of separation and divorce. While a majority had agreements for child support, residential custody, or major decision-making for children, one in five (20%) did not. Among those who did have agreements, over one-third worked them out between themselves, without lawyers, judges or other professionals. Non-users were sometimes unaware of services, but among those non-users who were aware, most (73%) declared that they did not need any. Still others were prevented from finding solutions as a result of persistent conflict with their former partners or dealing with an absent or uninvolved parent.

Financial arrangements for children were the most likely to involve legal input, either from a lawyer, court services such as mediation, or from a hearing or a trial before a judge. Even so, 34% of financial support arrangements for children were based on verbal agreements or on written agreements made without legal counsel.

GSS 2007 family, social support, and retirement, cycle 21

The 2007 GSS is the fifth GSS survey cycle to ask Canadians about social support and aging, and the fourth cycle where we are returning to the subject of retirement. In keeping with the GSS mandate to address information and policy needs across policy departments and to respond to emerging issues, the GSS 2007 focuses on concerns associated with an aging Canadian population, the impending baby boom retirement wave, and the resultant anticipated labour needs.

According to the 2006 Census, 13.7% (4.3 million) of the Canadian population was aged 65 and over, an increase of more than 446,700 persons compared with 2001. This percentage has been rising steadily since 1966 when it was 7.7%, mainly due to the decrease in the birth rate of the last three decades and an increase in life expectancy. It is anticipated that issues to do with the aging of the Canadian population will intensify as the baby boomers reach 65 years of age4. In fact, the number of seniors aged 65 and over is projected to outnumber the number of children aged less than 15 years by 2015. This is unprecedented in Canadian history. It is estimated that by 2031, around 24% of the total population will be 65 or over, nearly double the current proportion of seniors5.

These demographic changes will have a significant impact on the Canadian labour force as the baby boomers reach retirement age. It is expected that retirements, especially of boomers, will exceed the number of people entering the labour market. It will also affect the nature of retirement as retirement today is more fluid than ever before. Some retire in stages; some retire and then go back to the same or different work, while some workers never fully retire from the labour force. However, when the boomers do retire in large numbers, there will be huge consequences on the labour market that governments and employers will need to address.

Building on the findings from GSS 2002 on Social Support and Aging, new content for GSS 2007 aims to quantify the consequences of care-giving on the caregivers by looking at changes in their labour force participation, job attrition, pension accumulation and experiences of re-entry into the labour force. Rather than re-creating the care-giving and care-receiving rosters of previous cycles, more detailed information is collected on the care-giving and receiving relationships that demand the most resources for the respondent or their care-giver, with summary information on the other care relationships. Also part of the new content is a section on end-of-life care, examining the barriers to providing this kind of care in the home.

Another new section for 2007 explores retirement intentions, motivations and preparedness, with new content on the experiences and resources needed by vulnerable older Canadians before they are eligible for pension funds, particularly those who are unemployed yet near retirement age.

Responding to important new directions in policy research, the GSS has approached content for the 2007 survey from a life course perspective. In the 2007 GSS, our approach to applying the life course perspective is to: identify key transitions (noted below); collect histories that show family, work, education and care trajectories; collect information on life disruptions; identify social networks and the flow of resources associated with them; and collect information on life choices such as those related to education, retraining, retirement and care-giving.

Summary of GSS 2007 content

Mid to later life transitions:
  • Retirement transitions
Reasons for retiring, conditions to continue working, spousal influences, financial readiness
Transitioning to retirement, returning to work after retirement: barriers and motivations
Older workers: training and lifelong learning experiences
  • Care-giving and or or care-receiving
  • Social networks, temporary help networks, care for long-term health conditions, unmet needs
    Sources of support for caregivers and consequences of long-term care-giving
  • Family structure changes
  • Family history of respondent
  • Changing living arrangements and housing
  • Proximity to family, transitional housing, downsizing

    Context variables:

    • Health: Health Utility Index, activity limitations, long term conditions
    • Life course trajectories: Family, work (and work interruptions), education, care-giving (major episodes)
    • Main activities: Includes civic engagement, time crunch
    • Life events: Victim of serious crime, bankruptcy, natural disaster
    • Classification variables: Birthplace, ethnic ancestry, aboriginal identity, visible minority, language, religion, income, sexual orientation

    In terms of sample design, the 2007 GSS had a target population of 25,000 persons aged 45 and over. In order to gather such a sample efficiently, approximately 45% of the sample were respondents to Cycle 20 (family transitions) in 2006 and were 45 years of age or older in 2007. These respondents were re-contacted and asked to respond to Cycle 21 as well. One of the advantages of this sample design is that it will provide researchers and analysts with a richer, more complex database with information for respondents to both cycles 20 and 21. The remaining 55% of the sample was determined through random digit dialling, the usual methodology for GSS surveys. Proxy interviews were allowed when the respondent did not speak English or French or was unable to answer because of a health problem, physical condition or mental condition.

    The data are being processed and will be released in early Summer 2008.

    GSS 2008 social networks, cycle 22

    In 2003, the Social Engagement survey collected comprehensive information on a wide range of activities in which Canadians were engaged. These activities included social contacts with family, friends and neighbours; their involvement in formal organizations, political activities and religious services; their level of trust in people and in public institutions; and how they described their sense of belonging to Canada, their province and their community. Building on that cycle, the 2008 GSS focuses on social networks and looks at the impact of social networks on policy-relevant outcomes. The survey will help researchers understand the resources Canadians have and use to help them through key life transitions.

    Researchers and policy-makers used the 2003 cycle to develop a better understanding of how social networks and norms of trust and reciprocity may contribute positively to individual and social outcomes. Whereas the 2003 GSS on social engagement focused on the factors affecting the creation and maintenance of social capital, in the 2008 GSS the focus is more on how social capital is mobilized to access resources at critical transition points in the life course. Both the presence and the functioning of social capital in relation to a specific event or transition are measured.

    A significant amount of work has been done in Canada on determining how best to operationalize and measure the concept of social capital. Based on this work, the 2008 GSS has adopted the following general operational definition of social capital outlined by the Policy Research Initiative6: "Social capital refers to the social networks that may provide access to resources and social support." The GSS is a survey of individual Canadians; hence the data collected look at individual social networks and the individual outcomes resulting from the mobilization of these networks. The 2003 GSS looked to some extent at help given and received in relation to the person's social network. In the 2008 GSS we ask when, how and why people are mobilizing their social capital to better understand what kind of social capital is accessed or needed for what types of situations.

    There are three key sections with new content in this cycle. The first section, which describes what people's social networks look like, has a new module for the Position Generator. This survey instrument measures the kinds of resources people have available to them through weak ties. Two other new sect ions explore the conditions under which people mobilize their social networks to help them through periods of change (such as the death of a loved one, health or financial change, or loss of a job). These sections look at changes experienced by the respondent during the last year. For the change that has had the biggest impact on the respondent, they are then asked about resources used, available (but not used), and about their unmet needs. Details are asked for each resource used, with the intention of answering questions such as:

    • How are social networks mobilized to access resources at critical points in the life course?
    • How do social networks contribute to positive outcomes for individuals going through change?
    • Under what circumstances is social capital available, but not mobilized?
    • Where are there unmet needs?

    The survey asks about three broad categories of resources: people, organizations and information. These are broken down as follows:


    • Family - spouse, parent, children, other relatives
    • Friend or neighbour - close personal friend, friend, co-worker, neighbour, other
    • Business people - employer, financial advisor or accountant, business friend, business other
    • Professional people - doctor or other health professional, lawyer or other legal professional, counsellor or other social service professional, teacher or other education professional, accountant, other professional

    • Local government resources - mayor or council, staff, economic development office, other
    • Other government resources - contact 1 or more departments, contact specific government employees, apply to 1 or more programs, contact elected representative and their office, other
    • Community or voluntary organization resources - health organizations, law and justice organizations, social services, social and public benefit organizations, religious organizations, education and youth development groups, employment and economic organizations, other

    • Internet
    • Other information or media resources - newspapers, television, newsletter or bulletins, radio, books, magazines, other

    The data are being collected from February to November 2008 and will be released in summer 2009.

    Twenty years of GSS

    Currently, data production for the 20thGSS cycle is completed, GSS-21 is in production and GSS-22 has begun collection. Over the past 20 years, a wealth of data has been collected and many important results have been discovered and published. While the annual releases of GSS data typically comprise analytic output that includes some comparisons of data over time, the 20th year of GSS data is an opportunity to look back over our years of data and ask: what have we learned about Canadian society over those 20 years? This milestone anniversary presents an opportunity to do some focused analysis taking advantage of the 20 years of data that are available. The purpose of this section is to provide an overview of some plans to mark this milestone of the 20th anniversary of GSS collection.

    We are currently working on the following analytic outputs for our 20 years of GSS celebration:

    • Fact Sheets under the theme: "without GSS we would still be wondering about ."
    • A scholarly journal issue dedicated to this subject

    Additionally, we are creating an historic database as well as tools to help analysts use it to analyze 20 years of cross-sectional data with a longitudinal eye. The idea is to provide analysts working within Statistics Canada's Research Data Centres (RDC) Program with the data in as coherent and accessible a manner as possible. Essentially, this is to be the creation of twenty data sets and, among other things, harmonizing variables over the 20 cycles and establishing methods for combining data across years or following trends through time.

    The analytic products will be released periodically throughout 2008. The historic database will be available in the university RDCs in spring 2008.


    For over 20 years it has been the mandate of the GSS to collect and provide information on the social conditions of Canadians, and it is with a real sense of anticipation that we are working towards the release of the new data described in this paper, and the resulting research and analysis that will come from these efforts.



    1. /bsolc/english/bsolc?catno=89-625-XWE2007001
    2. Beaupré, P. and E. Cloutier. (2007) /bsolc/english/bsolc?catno=89-625-XWE2007002
    3. Use with caution.
    4. Martel, L and Caron-Malenfant, É. (2007). Portrait of the Canadian Population in 2006, by Age and Sex: Findings. Catalogue no.: 97-551-XIE. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, Demography Division.
    5. Bélanger, A., Martel, L and Caron-Malenfant, É. (2005) Population Projections for Canada , Provinces and Territories, 2005-2031. Catalogue No. 91-520. Ottawa : Statistics Canada , Demography Division.
    6. Franke, Sandra. (2005). Measurement of Social Capital: Reference Document for Public Policy Research, Development and Evaluation. Policy Research Initiative.

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