Leading Multigenerational Nursing Teams

Nursing For the first time in history, today’s nursing workforce is composed of nurses from four different generational groups.  It can be challenging for nurse leaders to guide their teams to get past their conflicts and communication issues to work together in harmony.   If you are an emerging leader, it is likely that you are either from Generation X or Generation Y.  You may find yourself supervising nurses from a generational group that is different from your own.  As a nurse leader, you will play a key role in setting the tone and culture of the units or departments that you lead.  The journey of building a culture of inclusion and respect begins with insight into your own generational beliefs and biases.  The research that has been done with generational groups indicates that generational cohorts share birth years and a collective life experience that helps to shape their values, work ethics, attitudes toward authority and professional aspirations.  Generational profiles should not be considered infallible but they help to explain the life experiences of a generation that help to shape their personal core values.

The Veterans  (born 1925-1945)

Many nurses in the veteran generational cohort have already retired but some continue to work in both staff and leadership positions. The Veterans grew up in difficult times with life experiences that included World War II and the Great Depression.
The economic and political uncertainty that they experienced has led them to be hard working, financially conservative, and cautious.  Veterans value the lessons of history. When facing new challenges, they look to the past for insight into what has worked and what hasn’t. Organizational loyalty is important to this generation, and they feel seniority is important to advance in one’s career. They tend to be respectful of authority, supportive of hierarchy, and disciplined in their work habits.  For some nurses in this generational cohort, the transition to a high technology environment and use of electronic medical records has proved challenging.

The Baby Boomers  (born 1946-1964)

Baby Boomers grew up in a healthy post-war economy. Nuclear families were the norm. They were encouraged to value their individualism and express themselves creatively. Often described as the most egocentric generation, they have spent their lives rewriting the rules.  The Baby Boomer generation is the largest cohort in the nursing workforce and currently occupies many nursing leadership positions.  Baby Boomers are known for their strong work ethic, and work has been a defining part of both their self worth and their evaluation of others.   Significant numbers of Baby Boomer nurses are eligible to retire but many either want to continue working or have to because of the economic recession.

Generation X  (born 1965-1980)

The structure of the American family changed during the formative years of Generation X. Divorce rates increased significantly and many members of Generation X were raised in single parent households.  This was the first generation where both parents were likely to work outside the home and many were raised as latchkey children. Their formative experiences including exposure to massive corporate layoffs have led them to value self reliance and work-life balance; they are described as less loyal to the corporate culture. Technology underwent major advances during their formative years and has became an important part of their lives.  The Generation X cohort is significantly smaller than the Baby Boomers. During the 1990s, the profession of nursing had significant problems attracting Generation X members who saw nursing as not offering the career growth and entrepreneurial opportunities available in other jobs. However, many Generation Xers have now entered nursing as a second career and significant numbers are in leadership positions.

Generation Y   (born 1981-2000)

The Millennials are the second largest generational cohort in the general population and over the next ten years will be the largest cohort in the nursing workforce.  They were raised in a time where violence, terrorism, and drugs became realities of life. Raised by parents who nurtured and structured their lives, they are drawn to their families for safety and security. They are a global generation and accept multiculturalism as a way of life. Generation Y are the first true digital natives.  Technology and the instant communication made possible by cellular phones have always been part of their lives.  This generation is often compared to the Veterans in their values. A higher level of interest in nursing among this generation has been noted  and applications to nursing programs significantly increased as they entered college.

Understanding Your Team

An interesting exercise is to  do a generational profile of the team you work with.  See if you have a mix of all age groups and whether there are differences on various work shifts.  As a leader, your team will closely observe how you manage generational differences.  Do you try to understand differences and build synergy or do you complain about the differences in values and skills with technology.  Although there are differences in values, attitudes and beliefs in generational cohorts, there are also many similiarities.  All staff want to be respected, recognized and remembered for their work.  Team members should be able to agree on the common purpose of patient-centered care.

Each generational group has unique strengths that you as a leader can tap into to improve the work environment.  Some examples include the following:

Veterans – bring wisdom to their teams and also a historical perspective on their organizations.  Their insight can be valuable on task forces and committees. 

Baby Boomers – have significant clinical and organizational experience.  They make great mentors and should be engaged in helping with succession planning. 

Generation X – are known for their independence but are also keen observers of their environments.  They will bring creativity and innovation to solving problems.  They are also outcomes oriented which is an important skill in today’s healthcare environment.

Generation Y – are optimists and technologically savvy.  They should be part of technology selection teams and make excellent coaches for their more seasoned colleagues in how to use technology in the workplace.  They grew up volunteering and are civic minded.  They make great leaders for United Way drives and Going Green Initiatives. 

We know from research is that team performance is stronger when members have different attitudes, perspectives and experience.  Diverse work teams also tend to be more creative and better able to handle complexity and challenges.  As a nurse leader, it is important to honor these generational strengths and help teams to manage the conflicts that are inevitable when there is a diversity of opinion.


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