Working With Different Generations in Nursing

People blame all sorts of problems on the "generation gap." Older generations complain about "kids these days." The trending "OK Boomer" mocks older people who "just don't get it." But in nursing, five generations may now be working alongside one another.

Getting past age stereotypes can result in better patient outcomes — and a happier, healthier workplace — for everyone, from Gen Zs, the newest generation of nurses, to RNs in their 70s.

How Are Generations Defined?

A generation is an age cohort. This is similar to a "cohort" of students who progress through a degree program such as a BSN together.

Cutoff dates for each generation may seem random. But the date ranges for each generation represent key events that occurred during critical periods of development. These shared experiences can shape a generation's attitudes, values and behaviors.

What Are the Five Generations in Nursing?

Following is a snapshot of the five generations currently working in nursing. The birth years for a generation may vary by source. The dates here are from the Pew Research Center.

  1. Gen Z (born from 1997 on)

Gen Zs were born into technology. They are known as "digital natives" and the "iGeneration."

  • Gen Z grew up with gun violence, a major source of stress and a top activism issue.
  • Along with Millennials and Gen X, Gen Z voted at higher rates than older generations in the 2018 elections.
  • Gen Zs share the Millennial belief that increasing racial and ethnic diversity is a good thing.
  • Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation. Its members are also poised to become the most educated generation.
  1. Millennials (1981 to 1996)

Millennials, or Gen Y, are also known as the "9/11 generation." Millennials ranged from 5 to 20 during the 9/11 attacks. A national survey shows that 9/11 is a major influence on Millennials' attitudes and beliefs.

  • Contrary to some stereotypes, Millennials are known for high levels of volunteerism.
  • Pew Research Center reports that Millennials are better educated than older generations, though Gen Zs may soon overtake them.
  • Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force.
  • Like Gen Z, Millennials are more racially and ethnically diverse than older generations.
  1. Gen X (1965 to 1980)

Gen Xers saw the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iran hostage crisis. On a lighter note, Gen X had MTV.

  • Gen X women became the first generation to overtake men in education.
  • According to American Mobile, many Gen Xers had mothers who worked outside the home. They may be more self-reliant as a result.
  • U.S. News & World Report points out that Gen Xers grew up before the "solo sport" of "surfing the web" proliferated. As a result, Gen Xers are known for their people skills and may contribute to a more collaborative workplace.
  1. Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964)

Boomers experienced the Vietnam War, Woodstock and Watergate. They may not be considered tech-savvy, but older Boomers grew up with the first internet prototype.

  • American Mobile describes RNs from this generation as having a strong work ethic. They may also struggle with work-life balance.
  • Younger generations may have outvoted older generations in 2018. But Boomers were the first teens to vote when the 26th Amendment passed in 1971, giving 18 year-olds the right to vote.
  • Boomer women set the stage for later generations of women in the workforce. Going back to 1985, more Boomer women (66%) were employed than not. Today, 72% of Millennial women are employed.
  1. Silent Generation (1928 to 1945)

A 1951 TIME magazine piece described this generation as a "still, small flame." This generation is also known as the "Veteran" and "Traditionalist" generation. The oldest members of this generation were adolescents during World War II.

  • American Mobile describes the Silent generation as hardworking, disciplined and respectful toward authority.
  • The Silent generation grew up with the telegraph and telephone. RNs from this generation may not appreciate younger nurses who multitask on a smartphone while having a conversation.
  • RNs from this generation were in their teens and 20s when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. Social justice is a core nursing value for all ages.

How Can RNs Bridge Generational Gaps?

Working with multigenerational colleagues can have its challenges. Instead of assuming all Gen Ys are tech-obsessed or all Boomers are tech illiterates, for example, it helps to draw on each person's abilities. Here are a few tips to promote teamwork:

  • There is no escaping the rapid change in healthcare technologies. Tech-savvy RNs can take a mentoring role in helping others embrace innovations.
  • Younger RNs may have an advantage when it comes to technology. But growing up on it may impact people skills. RNs with stronger interpersonal skills can guide new nurses in developing strategies for stronger patient-nurse relationships.
  • RNs from the Boomer and Silent generations may have decades of clinical expertise and a wealth of institutional knowledge or wisdom. Sharing these insights can help smooth the transition for younger nurse leaders.

Making an effort to understand different generations can enhance mutual respect, boost morale, facilitate teamwork and improve patient outcomes.

Whether an RN has clinical proficiency built on decades of experience or a deeper knowledge of technology that comes from being born into it, when five generations of nurses take advantage of their unique strengths, it is a win for healthcare.

Earning a BSN can help RNs across generations develop the teamwork and communication skills they need to provide safe, high-quality care. The University of New Mexico (UNM) offers an online RN to BSN program that makes it possible for RNs to earn their degree while they continue to work.

Learn more about UNM's online RN to BSN program.


Pew Research Center: The Whys and Hows of Generations Research

Pew Research Center: Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X Outvoted Older Generations in 2018 Midterms

Pew Research Center: Early Benchmarks Show 'Post-Millennials' on Track to Be Most Diverse, Best-Educated Generation Yet

Center for American Progress: The Political Ideology of the Millennial Generation

American Mobile: Exploring the Generation Gap in the Nursing Workforce

Pew Research Center: Millennial Life: How Young Adulthood Today Compares With Prior Generations

Becker's Hospital Review: National Survey Shows Millennial Nurses Rewriting the Rules

U.S. News & World Report: Generation X Characteristics in the Workplace

TIME: People: The Younger Generation Civil Rights Act (1964)

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