Closing the Generation Gap in Nursing

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By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN

The days of “one size fits all” are gone when it comes to recruiting, retaining, managing, and educating nurses. Besides ethnic diversity, the fact that Americans are working and living longer than ever before means that several different generations can be employed at the same workplace. And while diversity can add texture and strength to the workplace, it can also cause conflict, dissension, and high turnover. Each generation has its own priorities, expectations, and motivators, not to mention skills, communication styles, and experience.

If we look at how experts Lancaster and Stillman look at the descriptions of these generations, 1 we can see how they can clash in the workplace.

Traditionalists (born pre-1945) — Fiercely loyal, patriotic, and hard working.

Baby boomers (1946-1964) — Idealistic, optimistic, and competitive. Often caregivers to both children and aging parents, they’re also known as “The Sandwich Generation.”

Generation Xers (1965-1980) — Highly independent, skeptical, and entrepreneurial. Tech-savvy.

Millennials or Generation Yers (1981-1999) — Globally aware, realistic, altruistic, and practical. They used computers as toddlers.

The newest generation, Z or post-millennial, has a more fluid start and stop point.

Generation Zers (mid-1990s to late 2000s) — Entrepreneurial and tech savvy, self-learners, and ambitious. The most diverse generation yet.

Rather than complaining about the “lack of loyalty of younger nurses” or the “older nurses’ resistance to technology,” there are practical and proactive steps that can be taken to create harmony and cohesion.

Acknowledge and appreciate differences: One group isn’t right, wrong, or better than the other. They’re just different. Each group’s characteristics stem from the societal norms, world events, and popular culture they experienced while growing up. And although each generation has many shared characteristics, each person is still an individual with his or her own needs and wants. Don’t prejudge the youngster or oldster. Be careful not to label people or make assumptions about them based on their age groups. Make an effort to understand why each person holds certain beliefs and values.

Promote intergenerational discussion: Each nurse wants to have a say in the way things are done at work. When decision-making, brain-storming, or project-planning, be sure to have representation from each age group. On-the-job systems have to work for everyone. Each generation will have its own valid perspective, and it’s important to be open to all points of view. Consensus is the art of incorporating the best of all ideas and coming to an agreement that everyone can live with. It has the power to span generation gaps by creating a new reality that works for everyone.

Adopt the attitude of collegiality: Focus on commonalities rather than differences. Regardless of our age, level of experience, or career goals, we are all nurses. As such, we have the same objectives: to improve the quality of health care. We all want to make a difference, feel a sense of satisfaction from our work, and be adequately compensated for that work.

Each generation brings value to the workplace and plays a key role in the present and future. Older nurses have solid and irrefutable experience to bring to the table. They’re a vital part of the workforce and will mentor future generations. Younger nurses have vitality, and energy and are technologically savvy. They’re the future of the profession. Nursing and health care cannot survive without either group. A healthy dose of respect, courtesy, and personal interest in each other does wonders to close the chasm.

Education, the great equalizer: No matter what the age group, nurses value continuing education and opportunities for ongoing professional development. Each group has its own preferred learning style, so there’s a need for different types of education and training. An institution that offers diverse learning opportunities, both classroom and computer-based, will have a better handle on retention.

Each generation can learn from the other, too. Older nurses can share insights and wisdom that only come from years of life and work experience. Younger nurses can give technological tips that make life and work easier and more interesting. Nurses from each generation should be given the opportunity to act as student and teacher at varying times.

Foster multigenerational mentoring programs: Professional association and work-sponsored mentoring are becoming popular in nursing. It’s the practice of pairing an experienced nurse with a less-experienced RN. But because of the changing profile of the new graduate, an experienced nurse can be younger than a new nurse these days. The important thing is to pair two nurses from different age groups. It’s an excellent way to create bonds of trust and understanding between the generations.

Rather than measuring the span between the generations, start drawing up plans to bridge the gap.

1. Lancaster L, Stillman D. When Generations Collide. New York, NY: HarperBusiness; 2002.

Copyright  All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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