An alarm went up a decade ago warning of an impending national shortage of registered nurses, predicted as baby boomer nurses neared retirement age.
Today new evidence finds that the nursing shortage has been averted, largely because of the Great Recession of 2008 and economic conditions.
The recession persuaded many nurses born during the post-World War II baby boom (1946 to 1964) to work longer instead of retiring.
And it prompted a “surprising surge of interest in nursing among members of the millennial generation” whose members “rushed into the nursing profession in unprecedented numbers.”
That’s the conclusion in a new report published this week in the journal Health Affairs. Peter Buerhaus, Montana State University’s nurse economist, is one of the report’s authors. Much of the report is based on U.S. Census data.
Millennials (people born between 1982 and 2000) have gone into the nursing profession at nearly double the rate of baby boomers, the report found.
In 2015, when the first millennials reached age 33, there were 760,000 full-time millennial RNs. The previous generation, Generation X (born 1965 to 1981), had produced only 400,000 RNs by that age.
The number of people taking the RN license exam nationally doubled from 2003 to 2013.
MSU has seen a similar surge in students training to become nurses. Enrollment at its College of Nursing has grown from 804 students a decade ago to a record 1,116 this fall.
The Health Affairs report cited several reasons why millennials flocked to nursing. For one thing, they came of age in a time of “profound economic uncertainty and earnings instability,” it said. There were national campaigns to promote nursing.
Millennials also tend to be attracted to “meaningful work” and “stable lifetime earnings and low rates of unemployment,” plus opportunities to learn, change jobs, move to new places and take on an expanding role in health care, it said.
“Overall, an average millennial has thus far been nearly twice as likely (186 percent) to become an RN as an average baby boomer,” the report said.
The authors wrote that they expect the nursing workforce to grow by 36 percent to more than 4 million registered nurses between now and 2030, a growth rate of 1.3 percent a year or about half as fast as the past 15 years.
“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.”
It’s hard to predict, the report concluded, whether the moderate growth of nurses will be enough to prevent large national shortages, as the baby boom generation ages.