The 4-Generation Gap in Nursing

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


April 11, 2013

In This Article

Managing a 4-Generation Staff

In The Nurse Manager's Guide to an Intergenerational Workforce, Bonnie Clipper reminds managers that in dealing with a multigenerational staff, they must realize that "one size does not fit all."[1] The manager's role is to reduce generational conflict and promote a positive work environment by assessing the staff's generational mix, acknowledging generational differences, understanding differing expectations, and building on the strengths of different cohorts among his or her staff.[14] "Spend time to learn what is important to motivate each individual, because there are nuances among the generations," says Clipper.

Managers must understand generational differences among their staff without resorting to stereotypes.[15] "Try to think about the generations broadly, but don't over-generalize to each generation," cautions Clipper. "For example, if work-life balance is important to Xers, it might not be the most important thing to every Xer." She emphasizes the importance of managers "speaking the language" of their staff by appreciating the modes and frequency of communication that are most effective for each generation. Depending on the make-up of the staff, the manager must find the combination of communication methods (emails, texts, Web postings) that are most effective.[15]

Managers have many responsibilities, from performance management and staff training to career advancement, recruitment, retention, and succession planning. The success or failure of a manager's effort depends on knowing how generational differences influence each of these areas. Generations differ in what entices them to pursue a nursing position, how they learn and respond to mentoring or coaching, and what keeps them satisfied and productive. At every stage, the manager must find what works for each generation. It can be an overwhelming task, but when armed with information, not an impossible one.

Retention of staff is an area that requires particular attention to generational differences. Members of each generation have different reasons for working, beliefs about work/life balance, aspirations for career advancement, and degrees of loyalty to the unit or organization. Successful strategies for meeting these generational needs flow directly from these differences (Table 2).

Table 2. Meeting the Needs of Different Generations[16]

Generation What They Want Strategies
Traditionalists Less demanding schedules (part-time; shorter shifts)
Reduced stress or workload
A job well done
Use a personal touch
Provide traditional rewards
Use as mentors
Offer less physically demanding positions
Boomers Recognition for experience and excellence
Positive work environment
Good pay and benefits
Continuing education
Give public recognition
Find opportunities to share expertise (precept, mentor)
Promote "gradual retirement"
Xers Career advancement
Shared governance
Autonomy and independence
Work/life balance
Provide opportunities for skill development and leadership
Involve in decision-making
Avoid micromanaging
Millennials Meaningful work;
Stimulation, engagement, involvement; multitasking
Skill development
Socializing and networking
Impatient for promotion
"Move up or out"
Encourage teamwork
Offer a supportive work environment
Begin leadership development early
Provide feedback
Provide access to social networks; build on technology strengths
Develop skill base

Common ground. Although it is important for managers to respect intergenerational differences and match management approaches accordingly, some evidence suggests that nurses of all generations share fundamental desires about their professional lives. In a study of generation-specific incentives and disincentives, acute care nurses were asked to select the factors that would encourage or discourage their continued employment. The 2 most frequently selected incentives across all generations were a reasonable workload and manageable nurse-to-patient ratios.[17]