What nurses of different generations can learn from each other

April 1, 2019

Stereotypes in nursing affect old and young alike.

For example, older nurses are afraid of technology. They are too regimented. They are stuck in their ways. They are unwilling to try new ways of doing things. 

On the flip side, younger nurses are overly dependent on technology. They haven’t developed a compassionate bedside manner. They are too quick to switch employers. They don’t value experience.

Of course, like most stereotypes, those perceptions of the generational differences among nurses are overly simplified and exaggerated, potentially leading to misconception or unhappiness.

The problem is, many in the nursing profession cling to these stereotypes. And when patients’ lives depend on nurses acting as a unified, supportive team, there is a lot more at stake than just hurt feelings. 

“Nurses are taking care of human beings, not just computers or spreadsheets – they are responsible for people’s lives,” stresses Kristie Lowry, DNP, MSN, RN, associate chair of graduate nursing at Capella University. “That makes the generational differences between nurses and how they deal with them a much bigger deal.”

There is so much that the different generations of nurses can learn from each other. According to the 2017 National Nursing Workforce Study, the average age of registered nurses is 51. [

Now is the time to take advantage of intergenerational learning opportunities in the profession.

The elephant in the room

Arguably, more than any other aspect of the nursing profession, the issue that most exposes the generational differences among nurses is how they approach technology.

“For the younger generation of nurses, particularly Millennials and Generation Z, technology is simply part of their DNA,” Lowry explains. “Technology is imbued into every aspect of their lives, and of course that includes their role as a nurse.”

Lowry is quick to add that it is impossible to overestimate the value that technology has brought to the health care profession. Nurses of every age must embrace technology if they are to fully and effectively care for their patients. However, Lowry cautions that overdependence on technology, particularly among younger generations of nurses, can also be limiting. 

“A nurse needs to be able to look in a patient’s eyes and have the patience to really listen, to feel what that person is feeling,” Lowry says. “That can’t be done through texting or social media. It is critical that nurses cultivate the compassion, intuition, empathy that is core to what nursing is all about. Technology is great, but we can’t use it as a crutch. Nurses can’t lean on technology as a replacement for true human interaction.”

And that reality—that nexus of where technology and human compassion intersect—presents the perfect opportunity for older and younger nurses to come together, Lowry believes.

“Technology offers the perfect reason for the different generations of nurses to come together for their mutual benefit,” Lowry says. “Younger nurses can guide older nurses on how different technologies can make them more efficient nurse practitioners. Older nurses can leverage their wisdom and experience and guide younger nurses on how to act with compassion and trust their intuition. Nurses can’t horde their expertise. Nor can they keep their heads in the sand. The different generations of nurses have so much to offer each other; they just need to be open to it.” 

Letting go – listen without judgment

Another stark difference among the different generations of nurses is how they view—and appreciate—hierarchy, authority, and decision making.

“Among older nurses, there is a high level of respect and appreciation for the ‘leadership ladder’,” Lowry says. “For those in leadership, there is a strong sense that they’ve earned their ‘stripes’. They are familiar with a more directive leadership style as it has worked for them. They are used to having someone in leadership make all the decisions and for everyone else to follow those directives to the letter. It works, why change it?”

It should come as no surprise that the younger generations of nurses see things a bit differently.

“The younger generations show respect, but they also question,” Lowry says. “And that’s a good thing. They push back and say, ‘Why are we doing this? Is there a better way?’ That just didn’t happen for older generations of nurses.”

She adds that it is essential for older generations of nurses to listen and let the younger generation’s voices be heard. And they should not just give lip service, but genuinely act on their younger peers’ ideas and bring them to life.

“These younger generations are more independent and autonomous,” Lowry says. “They can make decisions, and good decisions at that.”

So what happens when the younger generations of nurses feel they don’t have a voice? When their ideas aren’t heard and acted upon?

“The hardest thing for many hospitals is not recruiting a new nurse, it’s keeping the nurses they have for more than a few years,” Lowry adds. “Younger nurses want a path forward. They have no qualms about leaving for a better job. There is a lot of opportunity for young nurses today, which is why it is beholden on older nurses to help younger nurses feel energized. Give them a sense of ownership. Listen to them and actively incorporate their ideas in building a better nursing program.”

Learn more about Capella’s online nursing degrees and certificates.


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