Millennials Flock to Nursing in Mass Numbers

Baby boomer nurses were the largest segment of nurses to serve the profession from 1981 to 2012. For many, the time has come to make retirement plans.

Many healthcare experts have long wondered to what extent baby boomer nurses would impact nurse shortages once they retire. Many also have wondered who would fill their shoes once the mass exodus of baby boomer nurses begins. Turns out millennials stepped into those shoes at almost double the rate of the boomers, according to a recent study.

The study, “Millennials Almost Twice As Likely To Be Registered Nurses As Baby Boomers Were,” was published in the October 2017 edition of the journal Health Affairs by researchers from Montana State University.

“By the time the first members of the millennial generation reached age 33, there were 760,000 millennial full-time equivalent RNs, compared to 400,000 in Generation X at the equivalent point in time,” according to the study.

But millennials, those born between 1982 and 2000, did not enter the profession by happenstance, said study author Peter Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, FAANP(h), professor of nursing and director with the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies, College of Nursing at Montana State University.

Several factors influenced millennials who stepped into the nursing profession, Buerhaus said. Factors included a demand for nurses and the recent economic climate during the Great Recession, which started in late 2007 and lasted through mid-2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The recession sent a message to people about where and how to get a recession-proof job,” Buerhaus said. He said that also influenced non-millennials, such as mid-career folks looking to change professions and give nursing a try.

Millennials also may be influenced by the high regard in which nurses are held since they have topped the Gallup poll as the most trusted and admired profession every year since 2001.

Campaigns encourage millennials to become nurses

Buerhaus pointed out that between 2002 and 2017, Johnson & Johnson ran the “Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing,” which was an effort designed to bring more people into the nursing profession, something he said likely helped attract millennials into nursing careers.

Andrea Higham, senior director of corporate equity and partnership with Johnson & Johnson, ran that campaign for 15 years. She said it focused on three major goals: to enhance the image of nursing, increase nursing recruits and retain more nurses by mitigating burnout.

Starting in 2002, Johnson & Johnson invested $50 million in the campaign, Higham said.

“We’ve given out over 35 million recruitment and retention materials in over 50 countries since 2002, and we’ve distributed over $18 million in scholarships, fellowships and grants,” she said.

Those recruiting materials were sent to every high school and nursing school in the United States, Higham said. But she said there is no way to quantify how many millennials became nurses through their campaign.

She attributes the millennial nursing success story to the combined efforts of many organizations, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, hospitals, nursing schools and nursing associations that include the American Nurses Association.

Defining the generations

  • Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964
  • Generation X were born between 1965 and 1981
  • Millennials were born between in 1982 and 2000

Source: “Millennials Almost Twice As Likely To Be Registered Nurses As Baby Boomers Were,” a study published in the journal Health Affairs (October 2017)

Strategies to retain and attract millennials

Much has been written about how to work with millennials. To attract and retain this group, Buerhaus suggests learning more about how they think, because they are a large segment of the nursing workforce.

He suggests asking questions like, “What is it about nursing that satisfies you? How do you see yourself contributing to nursing?”

Higham said what people may not know about the millennial persona is that many value purposeful work and desire career opportunities where they can make a difference. This persona also was referred to in the Health Affairs study.

She said it will be important to help millennials find roles where they feel like they are giving back to the community. By doing so, it could potentially help with retention and avert future nursing shortages

“Millennials want to do great things and help people … nursing is a wonderful profession for people who want to give back, but also for people who want career progression,” Higham said.

Thanks to a high number of baby boomer nurse retirements, and millennials coming in to fill those spots, we can expect about 36% growth in the nurse workforce, equivalent to about 4 million RNs between 2015 and 2030, according to the study published in Health Affairs.