Nurses Delaying Retirement, Boosting Workforce

Marcia Frellick

July 17, 2014

Registered nurses are staying in their jobs longer and delaying retirement, researchers report this week. The trend has helped push the current workforce to 2.7 million, which is well beyond the previously projected peak of 2.2 million.

However, whether the new numbers will negate fears of nurse shortages is less clear, write David Auerbach, policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in Boston, Massachusetts, and colleagues. Their findings were published online July 16 in Health Affairs.

The researchers also note that how workforce growth plays against the increased demand for nurses in light of the higher numbers of insured, projected physician shortages, and increased need for providers under the Affordable Care Act remains to be seen.

The researchers found that from 1991 to 2012, 24% of the registered nurses who were working at age 50 years kept working as late as age 69 years. In contrast, just 9% did so from 1969 to 1990.

Other Reasons for Growth

Whereas delayed retirement accounts for about a quarter of the unexpected surge in the RN workforce, much of the rest of the growth comes from a jump in the number of nurses graduating from nursing programs. Between 2002 and 2012, the annual number of graduates more than doubled, rising from roughly 74,000 to 181,000. As a result, there are now 750,000 RNs younger than 35 years in the nurse workforce compared with 500,000 a decade ago.

A third reason for the growth is the slow economic rebound after the recession from 2007 to 2009, which has kept some nurses working who might have withdrawn in a more robust economy. In a previous analysis, the researchers found that "for each percentage-point increase in the national unemployment rate, the RN workforce was roughly 1 percent (or around 25,000 RNs) larger than it had been."

Data on the age and employment of RNs were drawn from the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey.

What the current growth means for the future is unclear, the authors say.

"The effects of the most recent recession will likely continue to recede, and the baby boomers will eventually retire. These changes may lead to a return of RN shortages in some areas of the country in the near term. However, the continued growth in the number of new RNs would help offset these forces," they conclude.

Support for the study was provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Health Aff. Published online July 16, 2014. Full text

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