The 4-Generation Gap in Nursing

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


April 11, 2013

In This Article

What Are Generations?

If you are averse to generalizations and stereotyping, you might resent being pigeonholed as belonging to a specific group defined largely by the year of your birth. However, if you have experienced the social phenomenon known as the "generation gap" in the workplace, you might appreciate a greater understanding of the intergenerational differences among your colleagues, from the youngest to the oldest.

A generation is defined less by age or time period than by having similar life experiences (people, places, major events, popular culture),[1] and the various characteristics and attributes common to its members.[3] "It is not a time constraint," says Clipper. "Time is one of the elements, but you also must consider shared experiences." Generations typically span about 20 years, although shorter periods can encompass cultural differences.[4] People born around the same time tend to be affected by the same set of experiences, so age is one defining factor (Table 1).

Table 1. Characteristic of the 4 Generations[1]

Generation Birth Year Proportion of Nursing Workforce Characteristics
Traditionalists 1925-1942 5% Dedicated, hard-working, loyal
Baby boomers 1943-1960 40% Optimistic, productive, workaholic
Generation Xers 1961-1981 40% Cynical, independent, informal
Millennials 1982-2000 15% Confident, impatient, social


Clipper emphasizes that "It is important not to over-generalize about an individual based on his or her generation." Moreover, there is substantial overlap in generations, and some people even straddle generations. Those born near the dividing line between generations (called "cuspers") can understand, relate to, appreciate, and display the behaviors of both generations.[1]

When defining generations by their typical characteristics, it can be difficult to distinguish a generational effect from a cohort effect.[5] In other words, are the differences between the groups really reflective of generational values, or do they signify characteristics of people at different stages of their lives and careers?[5]

As a colleague, understanding generational differences is important to maintaining effective and satisfying relationships at work. Managers in particular must strive to appreciate these differences if they want to build high-performing teams, establish respect, and create harmony among their staff.[2] The pay-off is higher employee engagement and improved patient care.[1]