Today’s nursing workforce comprises staff from four different generations. With each generation comes differences in attitudes, ideologies, beliefs, financial responsibilities, and work habits. In order to effectively work together as a team, nurse leaders need to understand the generations and individuals that they are working with.
To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Bradley University’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program.
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Generations in the Nursing Workforce
Today’s nursing workforce (approximately 4 million as of 2021) is made up of four generations. Twenty-two percent of registered nurses (RN) are baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 (ages 57 to 75 in 2021). Thirty-seven percent are Gen Xers born 1965 to 1980 (ages 41 to 56 in 2021). Thirty-nine percent are millennials born 1981 to 1996 (ages 25 to 40 in 2021). Only 1% are Gen Zers born 1997 to 2012 (ages 9 to 24 in 2021).
Age Distribution of RNs 2013-2020
In 2013, the age distribution of RNs skewed slightly older, with 50- to 54-year-olds making up 13.4% of the nursing workforce and 55- to 59-year-olds accounting for 16.9%, while nurses aged 60 to 64 and those 65 and up comprised 13.1% and 13.9%, respectively. Younger nurses accounted for a smaller portion of the workforce, with 8.6% of nurses between the ages of 18 and 29, 7.5% were 30 to 34, and 8% were 35 to 39. Meanwhile, 40- to 44-year-olds made up 8.9% of the workforce, and those 45 to 49 were 9.7%.
In 2015, the population of nurses was distributed a bit more evenly across age groups. For example, 9.5% of RNs were between the ages of 18 and 29, 9.9% were 30 to 34, and 9.5% were 35 to 39. Forty- to 44-year-olds accounted for 10.2%, and those 45 to 49 were 10.7%. Fifty- to 54-year-olds were 11.5%, and 55- to 59-year-olds were 13.6%. Finally, those 60 to 64 were 12.7%, and RNs 65 or older made up 12.4% of the nursing workforce.
The age distribution of nurses in 2017 was similar to that of 2015, with 9.7% of RNs between the ages of 18 and 29, 10% between 30 and 34, and 9.2% aged 35 to 39. Forty- to 44-year-olds also accounted for 9.2%, and those 45 to 49 were 11.1%. Fifty- to 54-year-olds were 10.3%, and 55- to 59-year-olds were 12.3%. Finally, those 60 to 64 were 13.7%, and RNs 65 or older made up 14.6% of the nursing workforce.
In 2020, 8.4% of RNs were between the ages of 18 and 29. Another 9.5% were 30 to 34, and 10% were 35 to 39. Forty- to 44-year-olds accounted for 9.1%, and those 45 to 49 were 9.9%. Fifty- to 54-year-olds were 10.5%, and 55- to 59-year-olds were 11.3%. Finally, those 60 to 64 were 12.2%, and RNs 65 or older made up 19% of the nursing workforce.
Generational Strengths and Weaknesses
While no group is a monolith, and individuals should always be treated fairly, some basic characteristics tend to be true within each generation.
The strengths of baby boomers include that they tend to value objective and rational decision-making, a significant workplace asset. They also display loyalty by identifying strongly with their jobs and the companies they work for. They tend to trust the system and stay in their positions longer than other groups. And lifelong competition inherent in such a large generation means this group tends to be competitive and hardworking.
On the other hand, their weaknesses include a self-sufficiency that makes them reluctant to ask for help when they need it. They’re also less confident with technology than other generations, with only 36% of baby boomers saying they are confident using new technology, according to market research firm GWI.
Gen Xers’ strengths include independence, due to growing up with more freedom and less supervision than previous generations, and a willingness to learn and master new technology. They are also goal-oriented and education-minded, making them strong team contributors who are enthusiastic about workplace education opportunities.
However, because they grew up with more freedom, this group can have a tendency to question authority and a strong need for autonomy and flexibility.
Millennials are tech savvy digital natives that enjoy learning and using new technology in the workplace. They’re also collaborative and innovative, leading them to value colleagues, seek input for problem solving, and seek process improvements.
On the other hand, they can be perceived as praise-dependent, expecting recognition and rewards from management. They’re also ambitious, which may lead them to challenge the status quo, and are less willing to work long hours due to a desire for greater work-life balance.
Having experienced a great deal of societal change, Gen Zers tend to be highly adaptive, flexible, and open to change. They are also goal-oriented, expecting clear goals, recognition, and immediate feedback. They’re often career-focused as well, though not necessarily loyal to a particular company.
Their youth, however, can cause this generation to appear entitled when they expect the same level of input and respect accorded older team members. They may also come off as less professional since they value skills over appearance, leading them to prefer more casual work environments.
Technology Gap in Nursing
Technology usage has changed significantly since baby boomers first entered the workforce, and proficiency can differ markedly across generations. The following are generational differences in nursing related to technology usage and expertise — and ways to address those differences.
- Baby boomers may struggle with technology, which can translate to difficulty adapting to new software or tech-focused routines. Boomers may embrace some social media, such as Facebook, but see it mainly as entertainment rather than a workplace tool. Nursing leaders can pair older employees with younger ones who can share tech know-how.
- Gen Xers are generally comfortable with technology and appreciate the efficiency it can bring to their jobs. Computers and smartphones are common tools for them, and they usually pick up new software easily. However, they may view instant messaging apps as intrusions on their independent way of working. Leaders should be clear about communication expectations within the team.
- Millennials are tech savvy when it comes to software, computers, smartphones, and most social media. Since they value innovation, this group may be very quick to adapt to new programs. Leverage their desire for collaboration by having millennials work with others on integrating new technology.
- Gen Z grew up with smartphones, apps, digital communications, and a software-driven world, so they are very comfortable with it. In fact, they may have higher expectations of using the latest technology in the workplace. Oddly enough, some studies have shown that Gen Z prefers in-person feedback. For that reason, offering them opportunities for face-to-face interactions as well as digital communication will help them maximize productivity.
How Nurses Can Bridge Generational Gaps
Understanding generational differences in nursing can help teams work together more cohesively, and managers can leverage these differences to their advantage, especially if they pay attention to communication preferences for each group. However, these are generalizations, so individual preferences should always be considered. Above all, look for ways to embrace differences and use varied skill sets to improve team function.
For baby boomers, the best management strategies include finding opportunities for them to share their expertise, leverage their goal-setting mindsets, and channel their competitive nature. When communicating, they prefer efficient interactions conducted face-to-face or by telephone.
Gen Xers can be managed best by respecting their desire for work-life balance, allowing them to work independently, and playing to their goal orientation. They prefer direct and short communication via email, phone, Facebook, and text.
To best manage millennials, capitalize on opportunities for them to use their tech skills, recognize their desire for collaboration, and encourage their innovative nature. Communicate with them using frequent, short messages via text, instant messaging, and email.
For Gen Z, offer coaching, mentorships, training, and opportunities to use their tech skills. Project honesty and authenticity in interactions, using transparency and visual communications via instant message, text, and social media.
Best Practices for Nurse Leaders
Knowing how each team member approaches their career, what they value, how they prefer to communicate, and what their weaknesses are will help any leader — and their team — perform better. Leaders can start with a generational approach, but developing one-on-one relationships builds better trust and team cohesion.
Nurse leaders can help bridge generational gaps and foster productivity by understanding what motivates their staff and creating a workplace where all opinions and ideas are heard and valued. They should also recognize generational differences and use them to explore diverse perspectives on issues while using commonalities and strengths to unite the team. Finally, leaders should encourage and develop mentoring partnerships where all employees can learn from each other and communicate in the mode that’s preferred by the employee and best for the message.
Like any modern workforce, nurses are spread across generations. Managers and team members may find it easier to understand and relate to each other using basic knowledge of the values, communication styles, and other characteristics of the different generational cohorts. By valuing and respecting differences while looking for common ground and allowing strengths to shine, nurse leaders can build strong teams that deliver the best patient outcomes.