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The Impact of Baby Boomers on the Nursing Shortage

Posted on: March 30th, 2016 by Jessica Barrett

The nursing shortage in the U.S. has been at a near-crisis stage for several years. The largest portion of the healthcare workforce are America’s 3 million nurses, and nursing as a profession is one of the fastest-growing careers in the nation. Yet the supply of nurses cannot keep up with demand.

Not only is there an aging population wherein there are more Americans over the age of 65 than at any other time in the history of our nation (the population of senior citizens is expected to increase by 75 percent by the year 2030), but a large percentage of the nursing population serving that demographic is exiting the profession.

Some baby boomer nurses delayed leaving their careers during the recent recession. Now, as they reach retirement age, signs of their exits have begun. Approximately a million registered nurses are older than 50, meaning that almost one-third of the estimated 2.7 million people who make up the nursing workforce will reach retirement age in the next 10-15 years.

Even as they near retirement, some baby boomers are still looking to change jobs. Data provided by People Element indicate 21% of preventable exits are from the baby boomer generation (born between 1946-1964). Workload is believed to be playing a factor in these preventable exits.

As the field of nursing becomes more and more challenging, aging nurses are faced with prolonged exposure to the physical, emotional, and mental demands of their workload. The fast-paced environment puts increased risk of stress, poor health, and injury on nurses who are growing older. High levels of stress and risk of injury are top health concerns of the baby boomer generation of nurses.

As a result of these taxing workloads, Strategic Programs found that of the percentage of nurses satisfied with their work-life balance, the baby boomer generation ranked the least. Baby boomers gave their satisfaction with work-life balance a rating of 64%, compared to millennials’ 69%.

Baby Boomer Generation Increasing the Nursing Demand

As our population ages, so does the need for care, especially for chronic conditions like diabetes, arthritis, asthma, depression, hypertension, Alzheimer’s, and lung disease.  About 80% of senior citizens have at least one chronic condition, and 68% have at least two. Julie Sochalski, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, recently told The Atlantic, People with chronic diseases clearly use more health-care services, and people who are older have more chronic disease.

A USA Today analysis of county-level Medicare data revealed that two-thirds of beneficiaries older than 65 have multiple chronic conditions, about 15% of them having at least six long-term illnesses. Research indicates that the baby boomer generation is sicker than their parents, yet they’re living longer, leaving them to deal with chronic issues for years.

Long-Term Solutions

Hospitals are looking at what options they have as they deal with the nursing shortage head-on. Closing beds or entire wings, is one solution, but not one hospital administrators want to have to consider. Other alternatives are asking nurses to work more hours for additional financial incentives. This is a difficult route to take, simply because of the risk of having overworked and fatigued nurses caring for patients. Hospitals can also hire travel nurses who typically work 13-week assignments to fill staffing gaps, however, this can be a costly option.   

There are some creative options being discussed such as taking a look at national licensing. Moving away from individual state guidelines may lift some restrictions and allow nurses to do more than they are currently allowed to in certain states.

Other solutions have to do with managers better understanding their workforce through a variety of approaches. Managers should find out what is causing employees to leave and what would encourage them to stay and be satisfied. Additionally, they can solicit feedback to find out the engagement levels of nurses. Understanding what motivates employees and taking action to retain and engage them, can put organizations a step ahead in the nursing shortage.

The current nursing shortage in the U.S. brought on by an aging population and an increase in chronic disease, coupled with the exit of nurses from the baby boomer generation, have created the perfect storm. The healthcare industry is working to find viable solutions to handle this impending crisis, as the need for nurses rapidly increases.

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