Boomer Administrators vs. Millennial Nurses: Bridging the Generational Gap in Healthcare

Every time you open industry news you see articles talking about nurse burnout and nurse shortages. It’s indeed a real problem. Nurses often have intense and demanding workloads, resulting in them feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. Nurses are at greater risk of injury and physical illness than the general public, statistically speaking, and also of mental illness caused by high levels of stress. The job can be all-consuming. Some research suggests that 60% to 70% of nurses feel that their job interferes with their ability to perform personal responsibilities, with top concerns including health/fitness, household management, traveling, and relationships.

Many in the industry are quick to blame more logistical issues such as nurse/patient ratios, escalating regulatory demands, and inadequate technology implementations. While these are indeed factors, they can also be seen as consequences of the increasing burnout rates. I suggest that the issue is deeper . . . and more about the generational gap in the healthcare workplace. 

Even before COVID, there was a glaring issue that remained largely unaddressed: the growing disconnect between the healthcare organization’s C-suites, predominantly the Boomer generation (ages 59-77), and the Millennial generation. The reality is that those two generations value work in very different ways. Yet as more staff from the older generation (primarily Boomers, but some Gen X) retire, the responsibility for patient care is falling primarily on the Millennials (ages 27-42). 

Here are some defining characteristics of the Boomer Generation in the C-suites of healthcare organizations:

  • Values recognition for their expertise and knowledge.
  • Prefers holding authoritative roles that come with perks and accolades.
  • Ties their identity to their professional milestones, often resulting in long working hours.
  • Is very loyal to their company. 

In contrast, the Millennial Generation, which constitutes the current majority of the nursing workforce:

  • Looks for jobs that teach them, help them grow and make a difference. 
  • Craves feedback from superiors.
  • Is quick to dispose of workplaces that no longer align with who they see themselves as
  • Is passionate about things outside of work, such as travel.
  • Is loyal to what they are working on, not necessarily to the company they work for.

In summary, boomers tend to value a stable job and a paycheck, while millennials are usually seeking a good work/life balance and the opportunity to contribute to the greater good. 

It’s crucial for Boomers to adapt to the needs and preferences of their Millennial counterparts, who are not afraid to change jobs frequently. If healthcare establishments aim to tackle the persistent staffing hurdles, C-suite leaders must acknowledge this generational rift and take proactive steps to mend it, ramping up engagement strategies with the employee base. This will necessitate putting egos on the back burner to foster a more cooperative and empathetic work atmosphere. The older generation of leaders must evolve their mindset, giving up a stranglehold on decision-making and include what is a very diverse workforce in building a long-term, successful organization. 

An American Hospital Association (AHA) Committee on Performance Improvement report1 outlined three key strategies to help hospitals and care systems build an organizational culture that develops and nurtures employees of all ages to provide excellent patient care:

  1. Build a strong generational foundation: Leaders need to understand their organization’s employee profile and develop programs and policies that will support individuals at all levels of the organization.
  2. Establish effective generational management practices: Leaders must focus on increasing the level of generational understanding among managers and supervisors so they can better manage their teams and relieve generational tensions in the workplace.
  3. Build generational competence: Once generational strengths are identified and leaders develop practices to leverage these strengths, they can spread generational understanding and sensitivity among the entire workforce.

Savvy employers will play to Millennials’ strengths, building team-based approaches to daily problem-solving as well as ongoing education. Additionally, the C-Suite would benefit from creative ideas that the younger generation might bring to the table, finding new ways to do this that improve the entire healthcare system. As example, engage nurses in innovation contests, rewarding standout ideas to improve patient care, or minimize hospital wastes, with cash prizes or travel experiences. 

Nurses are crucial to organizational success within the health system, therefore making their workplace more of what they want would not only reduce absenteeism and improve wellbeing, but also positively impact the patients they care for through improved working conditions, quality of care, and attention to patient safety.  

Enabling another generation to make meaningful contributions isn’t that hard. You just need to understand what drives the other group. Boomers might benefit from a refresher on “Huckleberry Finn” and remember the savvy tactics Tom Sawyer used to get his fence whitewashed.

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