Leading a Multigenerational Nursing Workforce: Issues, Challenges and Strategies

Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, CNAA


Online J Issues Nurs. 2006;11(2) 

In This Article

The Generational Cohorts

Zemke et al. (2000) describe generational cohorts as groups of people who share birth years, history, and a collective personality as a result of their defining experiences. Generational profiles, while not infallible, help us to understand how the life experiences of a generation capture the attention and emotions of millions of individuals at a formative stage in their lives and ultimately affect personal core values. Although there is no absolute beginning or end to generational groups, they typically span 15 to 20 years. The historical, political, and social events experienced by generational cohorts help to define and shape their values, work ethics, attitudes toward authority, and professional aspirations (Duchscher & Cowin, 2004).

The four distinct generations in today's workforce include the Veterans also referred to in the literature as Traditionalists or the Mature generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials sometimes described as the Net generation or generation Y (Duchscher & Cowin, 2004; Hart, 2006; Zemke et al., 2000). The generational characteristics of each cohort and their work-related characteristics will be described below.

The Veterans (1925-1945)

The Veterans grew up in difficult times with life experiences that included World War II and the Great Depression (Halfer, 2004; Zemke et al., 2000). The economic and political uncertainty that they experienced has led them to be hard working, financially conservative, and cautious

Veterans value the lessons of history. When facing new challenges, they look to the past for insight into what has worked and what hasn't (Weston, 2001). Organizational loyalty is important to this generation, and they feel seniority is important to advance in one's career (Carlson, 2005; Halfer, 2004; Ulrich, 2001). They tend to be respectful of authority, supportive of hierarchy, and disciplined in their work habits. Although as a group the Veterans have begun the transition to retirement, many nurses in this generation continue to work in all levels of nursing organizations.

The Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

Baby Boomers grew up in a healthy post-war economy. Nuclear families were the norm. They were encouraged to value their individualism and express themselves creatively. Often described as the most egocentric generation, they have spent their lives rewriting the rules (Zemke et al., 2000).

The Baby Boomer generation is the largest cohort in the nursing workforce and currently occupies many nursing leadership positions (Buerhaus, Staiger, & Auerbach, 2000; Thrall, 2005). Baby Boomers are known for their strong work ethic, and work has been a defining part of both their self worth and their evaluation of others (Greene, 2005; Sherman, 2005). Significant numbers of Baby Boomer nurses will be eligible to retire beginning 2010 and nursing shortages on a very large scale are projected unless work is redesigned to retain this cohort in the workplace (Buerhaus et al., 2000; Krail, 2005).

Generation X (1963-1980)

The structure of the American family changed during the formative years of Generation X. Divorce rates increased significantly and many members of Generation X were raised in single parent households (Karp et al., 2002). This was the first generation where both parents were likely to work outside the home and many were raised as latchkey children. Their formative experiences including exposure to massive corporate layoffs have led them to value self reliance and work-life balance; they are described as less loyal to the corporate culture (Karp et al.). Technology underwent major advances during their formative years and has became an important part of their lives.

The Generation X cohort is significantly smaller than the Baby Boomers. During the 1990s, the profession of nursing had significant problems attracting Generation X members who saw nursing as not offering the career growth and entrepreneurial opportunities available in other jobs (Wieck, Prydun, & Walsh, 2002). However, many Generation Xers have now entered nursing as a second career.

The Millennial Generation (1980-2000)

The Millennials are the second largest generational cohort in the general population (Raines, 2002). They were raised in a time where violence, terrorism, and drugs became realities of life. Raised by parents who nurtured and structured their lives, they are drawn to their families for safety and security. They are a global generation and accept multiculturalism as a way of life. Technology and the instant communication made possible by cellular phones have always been part of their lives.

This generation is often compared to the Veterans in their values. A higher level of interest in nursing among this generation has been noted and applications to nursing programs significantly increased as they entered college (American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2005). At present, this is the smallest cohort in the nursing workforce but the numbers of Millennials is growing.


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