Millennials will dominate nursing profession by 2020

A millennial, defined as someone born between 1982 and 2000, is nearly twice as likely to become a registered nurse (RN) than a baby boomer—a “surprising surge of interest” potentially averting a large national shortage of nurses as baby boomers transition to retirement.

The study published in Health Affairs and led by David Auerbach, MS, PhD, an external adjunct faculty member Montana State University’s college of nursing, didn’t seek to address why so many millennials have decided to enter the nursing profession. It did guess coming to age during the Great Recession may have been a factor, as being a RN can provide stable lifetime earnings and a low rate of unemployment, as well as a general attraction to “meaningful work with opportunities to learn and grow.”

Whatever their reasons, the nurse workforce will be dominated by millennials by the next decade. The number of RNs aged 33 or younger in 2015 hit 834,000—nearly double what it was in 2000, showing a greater interest in the profession than seen among Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1981). The rate of entry appeared to have plateaued around 2013.

Considering the plateau and the acceleration in baby boomers retiring, Auerbach and his coauthors expected the nurse workforce to grow 36 percent to over 4 million RNs over a 15-year period which began in 2015 and will end in 2030. That would equal a 1.3 percent annual per capita growth, about what half was seen between 2000 and 2015.

“In other words, even with millennials’ unprecedented rate of entry into nursing, the retirement of the baby boomers will dampen (but not erase) the workforce growth rates of the past decade,” Auerbach and his coauthors wrote.

Whether such growth will be enough to prevent shortages of nurses depends on some other difficult to predict factors, the authors wrote, like practice patterns and changes in technology. Employers may also consider generational characteristics to keep their own organizations stable, accounting for millennials’ “high propensity to switch jobs and organizations and their need for achievement and for a balance between work and life.”

Having the profession dominated by younger, less experienced nurses—with millennials forecast to make up a greater share of the nursing workforce than Generation Xers beginning in 2020—may also bring challenges for healthcare organizations.

“A more slowly growing workforce and the loss of an experienced cohort of RNs should be on the minds of provider and payer organizations as they transition to new care delivery and payment models in the next decade,” Auerbach and his coauthors wrote.