Compassionate, career-minded, predominantly female baby boomers embraced the nursing profession in the early 1970s following the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid programs, noted an article in the Journal of Nursing Regulation (PDF, 168 KB). By 1990, there were 1 million baby boomer registered nurses (RNs), making up about two-thirds of the RN workforce.
In a 2017 Health Affairs article on baby boomers in the nursing field, industry experts predicted that the number of baby boomer RNs would reach 660,000 in 2020—about half their 2008 peak. The same article explains that major events like the Great Recession have led to baby boomer RNs retiring in large numbers, with roughly 60,000 boomer RNs departing the workforce annually since 2012.
While the short supply of older nurses in the workforce creates room for newcomers to assume a variety of nursing roles across the country, it potentially means their accumulated knowledge and clinical experience goes out the door with them.
The aging nursing workforceis just one factor to consider in the present nurse shortage. More and more baby boomers are in need of quality health care. Advances in health care have led people to live longer lives overall, but 80% of adults 65 and older have at least one chronic condition that often requires ongoing treatment, according to the National Council on Aging. These Americans will need experienced RNs at the helm to maintain a safe and consistent continuum of medical care.
Sustaining an Aging Nursing Workforce
There are creative ways for health care providers to potentially stave off impending nursing retirement and prepare for it when it does happen. While some employees may put off retirement for financial reasons, others may choose to leave early if the work environment is stressful. Employers may consider the following strategies:
Encourage clear communication. Health care providers can engage in an open dialogue with their aging nursing workforce so they can properly prepare for their departure. Some people may have an idea of when they’d like to retire, but it’s not always freely shared with management. These conversations may enable the clinicians who will be left behind to begin planning and designing an onboarding process that sets up new nursing staff to confidently assume the roles and responsibilities of the departing nurse. It’s important for these conversations to remain constructive and maintain the dignity of the aging staff.
Enhance your work environment. Hospital leadership can appeal to an RN who is considering leaving soon by allowing a more flexible schedule or reduced hours or by offloading some of their responsibilities. Improving the work environment by implementing feedback regarding organizational policies is another way to possibly curry favor with older, more experienced staff members. RNs can enjoy changing gears to positions that involve patient education, prevention campaigns, or community engagement. TheFamily Nurse Practitioner might be a natural career path for RNs with a Master of Science in Nursing (MS in Nursing) who are interested in promoting health and preventing disease through primary care.
Offer meaningful mentorship opportunities. Mentorship programs between older and younger nursing staff could help to ensure a seamless transfer of knowledge and skills. Next-in-line staff might attend programs in management and leadership development, communications, program development, or team building to prepare them for new roles and career ascension. Next-in-line staff could also get tips from their older colleagues on how to best support and deliver care to adults aged 65 and older.
By anticipating the departure of a mature nursing workforce, health care organizations may be able to make improvements that create a better environment for the younger nursing staff entering the field or moving up, as well as a higher standard of care for the patients they serve.
Citation for this content: Nursing@Georgetown, the online MSN program from the School of Nursing & Health Studies.