Montana State University

MSU economist, colleagues: Millennials almost twice as likely to be RNs as baby boomers were

October 2, 2017 -- By Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service

Montana State University College of Nursing students conduct simulation scenarios in Sherrick Hall in Bozeman, Mont. The simulations are developed by senior nursing students and conducted by junior nursing students. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

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BOZEMAN — Members of the millennial generation are nearly twice as likely to be registered nurses as baby boomers were, according to new research by a Montana State University nursing economist and other researchers. The findings, published today in the October issue of the journal Health Affairs, indicate that a looming crisis due to a potential severe national shortage of nurses has likely been averted.

The study’s authors are Peter Buerhaus, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at MSU and a professor in the MSU College of Nursing; first author David Auerbach, who is affiliated with the center; and Douglas Staiger, the John French Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College. Their work was supported by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

To obtain information on workforce patterns and employment behavior of registered nurses over several decades, the researchers used data from two U.S. Census Bureau surveys: the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey. They found that the average millennial thus far has been nearly twice as likely to become an RN as an average baby boomer.

The finding is both surprising and welcome, Buerhaus said. That’s because, for years, many workforce analysts and employers worried that not enough registered nurses would be produced to replace the retiring baby boomers, a group accounting for the largest share of the RN workforce from 1981 to 2012. As a result, they feared that there would be large national shortages of registered nurses.

“This fear no longer appears to be justified, as the millennial generation is well on its way to replacing the baby boomers and supplying an additional 1 million RNs between now and 2030,” Buerhaus said.

Nevertheless, Auerbach cautioned that with roughly 1 million baby boomers retiring from the RN workforce, the total size of the registered nurse workforce will grow at an annual rate of 1.3 percent over the next decade, which is half the rate of yearly growth from 2000 to 2015.

“The federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration projected demand for RNs to grow 1.5 percent per year from 2012 to 2025, so our supply growth estimates are just a little below that,” he said. “We also know there will be variation in the growth in RN supply and demand by region of the country, so there will likely be areas of the country that will face localized shortages.”

The findings have a number of policy implications, said Staiger, who noted that the dynamics of the nurse workforce are strongly influenced by economic, sociodemographic and health care delivery trends.

“Implications of these dynamics include a transition to a younger workforce and a slower rate of growth from 2015 to 2030 than the health care system has been used to since 2000,” he said.

Furthermore, the researchers do not suggest that nursing schools should slow down or stop educating nurses due to the new research findings, Buerhaus said.

“There are many uncertainties that will affect both the supply and demand for nurses in unexpected ways, particularly with regard to how much demand for nurses will grow,” he said. “Given this, we see no reason to lower the production of nurses. Rather, if anything, nursing education programs should focus more diligently on preparing nurses for a health care system that will be driven increasingly by rewarding high value healthcare, improving quality and safety of care, controlling costs, shifting more health care into outpatient, ambulatory and community settings, and expanding clinical roles and leadership opportunities for nurses.”

Buerhaus added that with the millennials’ replacement of the baby boomers in the nursing workforce, employers will be well-served to better understand the work and professional expectations of millennials.

“Knowing what millennials are looking for in their work lives can help employers make informed adjustments and modifications in the workforce environment, which can have the added benefit of helping promote retention of RNs and avoid costly recruitment and replacement,” he said.

The full text of the study can be found here.

Contact: Peter Buerhaus, director, MSU Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies, peter.buerhaus@montana.edu

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