Over the last 70 or so years, the baby boomer generation — those born in the years that immediately followed World War II — have reached adulthood, contributed to numerous advancements in the workplace and are now reaching retirement age. Because of the higher-than-average birth rate associated with the period following the war, the number of people who fall into this category is high — approximately 75 million. While the shift in demographic associated with this generation’s retirement has profound implications for workforce levels and other socio-economic concerns in the U.S., the health care industry in particular is feeling the implications of the baby boomers’ advanced age. As this demographic has aged, it has brought new challenges that medical professionals must meet to ensure the health of the nation.
Baby boomers not only are influencing the health care field in general but also specifically the nursing industry. As demands on the medical field shift, the responsibilities and levels of nursing professionals will need to respond accordingly.
The baby boomers and health care
It would be hard to deny that the aging baby boomer generation is putting stress on the health care industry. According to Hospital and Health Networks, this demographic has proven to be more sickly than the previous, perhaps as a result of its members’ reputation for indulging more than their parents. Regardless of the cause, people are living longer, which typically increases instances of chronic conditions and other diseases that require care. But, boomers also have higher rates of hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes, which exacerbate this challenge.
While the increased demand on the U.S. health care system affects the medical profession in a variety of ways, this stress specifically affects the nursing industry in two facets: supply and demand.
An increased demand for nurses
People usually require more health care services as they become older. Consequently, as a result of the generation’s sheer size, the aging baby boomer population is increasing the demand for qualified health care professionals, including nurses. Because of state mandated nurse-to-patient ratios, hospitals may feel the strain of the increased number of patients sooner than other health care organizations.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), demand for registered nurses is expected to increase by 16 percent from 2014 to 2024, a rate that is much faster than other industries in the country. This rise will add an additional 439,300 job opportunities for nurses. Demand for advanced practice nurses (APNs) is even higher. The BLS reported that jobs for APNs during the same period are expected to increase by 31 percent, an addition of more than 50,000 positions.
The rising demand for nurses not only provides increased opportunities for professionals within hospitals but also opens up options in alternative health care settings, such as in private home care, long-term care facilities and outpatient clinics.
A decrease in nursing numbers
The aging population also affects existing nursing staffing levels. Experienced baby boomer nurses, including many in leadership roles, are retiring and leaving the health care field. According to AMN Healthcare (2015), nearly two-thirds of baby boomer nurses are considering retirement. “This data confirms what we’ve known anecdotally and allows us to finally put dimensions and a timeline around a predicted retirement surge,” Marcia Faller, RN, Ph.D., the chief clinical officer at AMN Healthcare, said in a press release. “But the harm to the health care industry goes beyond the numbers. The loss of this intellectual asset may be acutely felt in terms of quality of care and patient satisfaction. To withstand this loss, health care administrators need help in preparing for the nursing workforce of the future.”
While the nursing field already is experiencing a shortage, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reported that the problem will be intensified by the demand placed by aging baby boomers. This situation particularly is challenging as the retirement of these professionals has coincided with the increased staffing level requirements necessitated by health care reform in the U.S.
Some health care organizations are taking steps to keep baby boomers in health care positions longer, such as phased retirement and making the workplace friendlier to older employees. However, these measures only will stretch so far. As baby boomer nurses leave the medical profession, nursing institutions — both academic and professional — will need to attract a new generation of nurses to take their place to ensure that patients receive quality care.
The next generation of nurse leaders
What does the increased demand for and decreased supply of nurses mean for individuals who currently work in the profession? As previously noted, demand for APNs is expected to rise by 31 percent between 2014 and 2024. This growth includes positions such as nurse midwives, nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists.
To join the next generation of nurse leaders, consider enrolling in an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. An MSN not only will provide you with advanced knowledge of nursing practice but also prepare you to take on a position with more responsibility within your profession. With a growing number of nurses earning Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees, an MSN will set you apart from the competition and help to ensure that you provide your patients with the best possible care.