An Unexpected Growth in the Nursing Workforce

New study finds that older nurses are postponing retirement, which may delay—but not avert—a looming nursing shortage.

    • August 8, 2014
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More registered nurses (RNs) are delaying retirement, a phenomenon that is contributing to a larger-than-expected supply of nurses, according to a new study in Health Affairs.

In 2000, health care economists predicted that the nursing workforce would peak at 2.2 million in 2012 and begin to shrink soon after as Baby Boomers—the first of whom turned 65 in 2011—began to retire. Those forecasts led to predictions of widespread nursing shortages developing in the latter half of this decade if nothing else happened to increase the supply of RNs.

But those shortages may come later than expected, thanks to a surge of younger nurses in associate- and baccalaureate-degree nursing programs and also to the fact that older nurses are staying in the workforce for longer periods of time, the study found.

Between 1969 and 1990, 47 percent of nurses who were working at age 50 were still working at age 62, and 9 percent were still working at age 69, according to the study. Between 1991 and 2012, 74 percent of older nurses were working at age 62 and 24 percent—or one in four—at age 69.

All told, older nurses have extended their careers by an average of 2.5 years, a phenomenon that increased the 2012 RN workforce by 136,000.

The recent recession likely played a role, according to Peter Buerhaus, PhD, RN, a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University and director of the university’s Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies. Older nurses may have stayed in the job market longer to compensate for lost income from a spouse’s job loss or the downturn in the economy, said Buerhaus, who co-authored the study.

But the economy isn’t the only factor. There is some evidence that older people are healthier now than their predecessors were and may be able to postpone retirement as a result, Buerhaus said. Older RNs, he added, report higher levels of job satisfaction than professionals in fields like medicine, business, teaching, and law. “As more and more Baby Boomer nurses are aging, they’re more likely to be satisfied and more likely to want to remain in the job market.”

The size of the nursing workforce stood at 2.7 million in 2012—500,000 more than Buerhaus and his colleagues predicted it would be in a 2000 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But that doesn’t mean that shortages aren’t on the horizon, Buerhaus said. Baby Boomer nurses may be working longer, but they will eventually retire.

At the same time, demand for nurses is surging, thanks to factors including the aging and growing population, the explosive growth of chronic conditions, physician shortages, and new access to health insurance for millions of Americans.

“While I’m happy that we have an unexpected increase in the supply of RNs,” Buerhaus said in a recent post on the RWJF Human Capital Blog, “I don’t know that if the increase will be large enough to offset the future demand for nurses.”  

“We should not become complacent because the nursing shortage may be delayed by a few years,” warned Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Senior Adviser for Nursing Susan B. Hassmiller, RN, PhD, FAAN. “This is a reprieve, not a solution. A severe nurse faculty shortage is already impeding efforts to increase the number of highly educated nurses. With more nurse faculty nearing retirement and few younger nurses poised to take their place, the outlook is not good. We must unblock the pipeline, because a nursing shortage can have a profoundly negative impact on the country’s health. We ignore this problem at our peril.”   

Read about the surge of younger nurses in the nursing workforce.

Read the Q&A with Peter Buerhaus on the RWJF Human Capital Blog.

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