The Aging Nursing Workforce

The Aging Nursing Workforce

The Baby Boomer Generation

Who are the baby boomers? Born between 1946 and 1964, the baby boomer generation gets its name from the sharp rise in birth rates, commonly referred to as the “baby boom,” in the years following World War II. With high urbanization rates and low-cost city living, a flourishing economy, and the government encouraging the growth of families, WWII soldiers who had held off on getting married and starting families before deployment decided to do just that. From the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights movement and the launch of Sputnik in space, baby boomers have lived through the peak of some notable global and national events.   

The baby boomer generation’s impact on American society and health care cannot be overstated. Consider the following facts about this population, past and present:

Implications of an Aging Nurse Workforce

The number of millennials has surpassed the number of boomers approaching their golden years. According to Health Affairs, eager millennials are entering the nursing workforce at almost double the rate of boomers. They’re drawn to the meaningful work, learning opportunities, and geographical mobility that nursing provides, among other reasons. As baby boomer RNs retire and other nursing professionals transfer to different jobs, demand for RNs is expected to increase in the coming years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030.

The following states are likely to have the highest demand for RNs by 2030, according to projections from the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis (PDF, 856 KB):

  • California (44,500)
  • Texas (15,900)
  • New Jersey (11,400)
  • South Carolina (10,400)
  • Alaska (5,400)
  • Georgia (2,200)
  • South Dakota (1,900)

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 workforce is 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. The Family 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.