COMMENTARY

Why Aren't Nurses Retiring?

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS

Disclosures

September 08, 2014

Registered Nurses Are Delaying Retirement, a Shift That Has Contributed to Recent Growth in the Nurse Workforce

Auerbach DI, Buerhaus PI, Staiger DO
Health Aff (Millwood). 2014;33:1474-1480

Recession and Retirement

Early in the 21st century, one of the hottest topics in nursing was the upcoming nursing shortage. It was predicted that by the year 2020, the number of registered nurses (RNs) would fall short of need by 20%, exacerbated by the retirement of an aging nurse workforce.[1]

When the economic recession of 2007-2009 began, people speculated about what would happen to the nursing workforce, and some of these predictions came true. Along with many inactive nurses re-entering the job market, many older, "baby boomer" (born between 1946 and 1965) nurses put their retirement plans on hold, pending economic recovery. Healthcare was needed regardless of the struggling economy or rising unemployment rates, and experienced nurses had little difficulty finding jobs.

It was a tougher environment for new graduate nurses. A surge of nursing school graduates were depending on an even larger exodus of older nurses from the workforce, creating a staffing void for them to step into. But with the recession, it wasn't happening. Experts and advisors said, "Hold on, be patient. When the economy starts to recover, the nurses will all retire at once, and you will have your pick of nursing jobs." This belief was so strong that hospitals and healthcare employers were cautioned not to be "lulled into complacency by the current absence of a nursing shortage," but to anticipate that the weak economy would recover, and the supply of nurses would evaporate.[2]

Things didn't quite turn out that way. The economy improved, but the older nurses still didn't retire en masse, and the nursing workforce was expanding rather than contracting. What was going on?

Auerbach, Buerhaus, and Staiger decided to take a closer look at why the nursing workforce has continued to grow. After all, they were among those who believed that the healthy workforce was the result of the economy, and this bubble would soon break.[2] Using data from the US Current Population Survey, the American Community Survey, and the US Census Bureau, they analyzed the workforce and retirement trends of RNs in the United States.

They found that nurses were, indeed, retiring later, as they had suspected, but it was not a consequence of the 2007-2009 recession. They demonstrated this by comparing patterns of nurse retirement for the time periods of 1969-1990 and 1991-2012. The years 1991-2012 witnessed a significant increase in the proportion of nurses still working after age 50 years (Figure).

Figure. Proportion of nurses who worked past age 50 years and were still working at ages 62 and 69 years, comparing earlier and later time periods.

These data demonstrate that more nurses were still working at age 62 and age 69 years in 1991-2012 compared with 1969-1990. In 1969-1990, the mean retirement age was 51.5 years; and in 1991-2012, it was age 54 years, a difference of 2-3 years. There was also no significant change in retirement ages between 2007 and 2012, the period covering the recent recession. Thus, the career span of nurses has increased over time, a change that began long before, and is independent of, the recent recession.

The investigators also assessed the effect that the increasing duration of nurses' careers has had on the size of the nursing workforce. In other words, do longer careers explain why we have 500,000 more nurses than we thought (back in 2000) that we would now have? Their analysis revealed that only 25% of the excess nursing supply is explained by the change in retirement age, and about half is likely a consequence of a higher-than-expected number of new graduate RNs.

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