Pop quiz:

Which generation of nurses is more inclined to take on leadership roles?
  1. Baby boomers
  2. Millennials

If you’re a baby boom nurse (born between 1946-1964), you likely scoffed at the question. Of course, the first answer is correct, you’d say. After all, your generation has assumed leadership roles in nursing for decades; and your cohort has long laid claim to the work ethic, stamina, and loyalty that combine to make superior nurses and exceptional nursing leaders. Those millennials, on the other hand? Well, they can hardly look up from their cell phones long enough to see what’s going on around them in their current jobs, let alone set their sights on future leadership. Plus, millennial RNs (born between 1981 and 1997) lack devotion to their work and allegiance to the nursing profession. They either job hop, sit on their heels in their safe spaces, or jump to other professions in droves. They don’t have leadership potential.


Judging from a new report by staffing company AMN Healthcare, had you picked baby boom nurses as the most likely candidates for future nursing leadership, you’d have failed the quiz. The report, Survey of Millennial Nurses: A Dynamic Influence on the Profession, found 36% of millennial RNs intend to become leaders in their profession. Only 10% of baby boomers in nursing said the same. Millennial nurses also are more committed than baby boomer RNs to furthering their education. According to the report, which surveyed more than 3,000 RNs across age groups, 71% of millennial nurses will seek advanced nursing degrees, compared to 20% of their baby boom colleagues. Just shy of half of millennial RNs (49%) plan to become advanced practice nurses; nearly a third (28%) aim to become nurse practitioners within the next three years. Just 12% of baby boomer RNs are intent on securing advanced practice roles.

On the other hand, the same survey gave credence to experienced nurses’ skepticism about the staying power of millennial RNs. It revealed 17% of millennial nurses, versus 10% of baby boomer RNs, plan to look for new places of nursing employment. The results of another recent study, a collaboration between New York University and the University of Buffalo called the RN Work Project, confirmed that newbie nurses do bolt from the profession. Nearly 18% of new nurses in the study left their nursing jobs within the first year and 60% left within eight years.


Not Who You Think They Are

Much has been made of the millennial mindset, with its apparent preference for the pursuit of passion over knuckling down and getting the work done. All that personal focus has led their predecessors to view millennials as “Generation Me” — essentially an entitled, coddled bunch.

But while it’s easy to pin millennials’ frequent job changes on self-absorption, fragility, and lack of loyalty, realities in the healthcare field point elsewhere. Expanded roles in nursing now allow millennial RNs to enjoy more opportunities than their older colleagues ever had. Gone are the days when the path to success in a nursing career necessarily led through the hospital setting; millennial nurses know fulfilling and career-advancing opportunities await in the likes of clinics and ambulatory surgical centers. The Pew Research Center found that millennials don’t job hop any more frequently than their predecessors in Generation X (born between 1965-1980) did early in their careers.

Another reality check: Despite a tendency to view younger nurses as uninvested in their jobs, studies show little difference in overall work-related attitudes among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials. A meta-analysis, for example, revealed stage of life, not membership in a generation, accounted for insignificant variations in attitudes toward work among people of different age groups. In other words, young people see — and have always seen — life and work a bit differently than their older counterparts. Analysis of the Advisory Board’s National Employee Engagement database likewise found that when it comes to employee engagement, the top 10 drivers of engagement for millennial nurses matched those of all other nurses.


Leap the Gap

Why then, with so much in common in their outlook on work, do millennial RNs so baffle their baby boomer counterparts? Whatever the underlying reasons for the divide (differences in personal values, lifestyle, and experience with technology among them), there’s good reason to make an effort to bridge the gap: Baby boomers account for about 50% of today’s nursing workforce, but millennials are close on their heels in number — and power. A clash of these titans won’t propel the nursing profession forward; friction between the groups won’t keep new nurses in the profession, and it won’t improve patient care.

Cultural competency helps nurses better understand and connect with their patients. Learning to appreciate the experiences that shape who patients are and to understand where they’re coming from enhances patient care. Generational competency can likewise improve relationships between experienced and young nurses, who need as much mentorship and support as any new generation of RNs.

Take time to learn where millennial nurses are coming from. Consider your assumptions about the young generation of nurses, then bust any misunderstanding about the group with knowledge that can enrich work relationships and, ultimately, patient care. Here are a few tips to get you started:


Careers Calling

Millennials have a strong sense of purpose in their lives. Their Generation X parents were very involved in their upbringing, and they faithfully recognized and praised their children’s accomplishments, however small. A lot of criticism has been levied against these so-called participation-trophy childhoods; but on the positive side, millennials learned to highly value themselves and others. They are self-aware and intentional, and they expect to be involved. More than previous generations, they are driven by a deep-seated desire to make a difference in the world. They purposefully choose professions that align with their values and priorities, often viewing their work as a calling. According to a recent study, millennials are almost twice as likely as baby boomers and 60% more likely than Gen Xers to choose nursing as their life’s work.


Try this: Recognize that millennials are attracted to nursing because they earnestly want to make a difference in people’s lives. They’ve been taught that their input has value, and they expect to have a say in decision making. Look for opportunities to get them involved — on a tricky patient case, for example, or on a professional committee. Give praise when it’s due, and keep your feedback constructive. You might say, for instance, “Hey, you handled that dressing change well; but next time, you might want to …”


Money Matters — But Only So Much

A consensus opinion of millennials is that they only work to fund their gadget obsessions. A little understood factor in this generation’s view about money, however, involves their education. Millennials carry more college debt into their professional work lives than baby boomers and Gen Xers. They’re also earning less than their parents did at their same age, while costs such as housing and child care have skyrocketed. Millennials came of age witnessing their parents’ struggles with the Great Recession, including layoffs from longtime employers. That experience gave them the added moniker of the Recession Generation and prompted them to become better savers than their predecessors. They don’t take it for granted, as other generations have, that they will always be financially secure. They’re less willing than previous generations to stick it out for years with a single employer, especially if they feel their contributions aren’t respected. A mobile economy enables their frequent change of workplaces, a behavior tied more to their pragmatism than lack of loyalty. They know they can readily take their intelligence and skills elsewhere.

Try this: Understand that millennials face significant financial headwinds, but they still give their interpersonal needs high priority and are driven more by feeling valued on the job than dollars. To them, money will rarely compensate for feeling unsuccessful or unwanted at work. Help keep millennials in your organization by willingly sharing your expertise and serving as a role model. Don’t be the dominant player at work; be a coach.


That Tech Thing

Millennials were practically weaned on technology. All that tech-savviness has made them highly adaptable to change, and they can become frustrated when others don’t share their enthusiasm for improvement and The Next Great Thing. Yes, they seem to consider their cell phones and smartwatches as actual extensions of their bodies; but they’re not as self-absorbed as they appear. Millennials are master multitaskers. They can deftly balance a verbal conversation simultaneously with a social media one.

Try this: Respect millennials for the tech gurus they are. Many a baby boomer has struggled with the rapid pace of technological advances in healthcare (think electronic health records). Shelve any reservations you may have toward the latest tech developments and toss aside your hesitancy to ask for help with equipment or software, especially from a newbie nurse. Millennials value your expertise; but they were raised to believe they’re equal to anyone else, and they know they have highly prized skills. Hold your millennial colleagues in the same esteem you would your contemporaries or any other helpful resource.

Nurses of all ages find fulfilling, long-lasting careers at Eisenhower Health. View open positions on our Careers page, and learn how you can join the leading healthcare employer in California’s Coachella Valley.

Originally posted on 1/10/2018

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