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Generational Perspectives in Nursing: From Boomer to Zoomer

Mar 10, 2020
Catherine Burger, BSN, MSOL, RN, NEA-BC

Some of you Boomers might remember "back in the day" when you were a new nurse, and the doctors were old, even the residents. And the Head Nurse (who was at least 100 and trained under Florence herself) was the epitome of grit and tenacity, yet no one dared question her authority.

Remember thinking, "just because I'm young -- we all put our caps on the same way, black stripe up -- doesn’t mean I don’t have good ideas too!?"

Well, that is precisely what the new Generation Z (or Zoomer) nurses are thinking, minus the cap. Move over Baby Boomers, Xers, and Millennials, there’s a new generation in town, and they don't know the meaning of the words cardex, reference manual, or “You don’t need to wear gloves for that.” 

According to numerous sources (including Billy Idol), each generational marker serves as a quick-guide reference to around 20 years of historical events, social attitudes, and drivers (although most people don’t identify themselves by a label).

Generational Perspectives in Nursing 

Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 - 1964

These are your paper-chart-loving nurses who “made things happen” without written policies and procedures. They gave up their seats to physicians (even the residents) and are still horrified when nurses call clinicians by their first name. They are the trail-blazing NPs who fought to share the sacred space of medicine, and the nurses who wore gloves only for the worst of bodily fluids.

They sterilized and re-sharpened “hypodermic” needles, put sugar on open wounds, then used a heat lamp to dry them out. They witnessed numerous hospitals close down as a result of Medicare changes and oversight to the length of stay measures. True, most are looking to retire soon, yet they hold incredible knowledge in not only the process of nursing but in the art of nursing as part of humanity (which we will always need to capture).

generational perspectives in nursing baby boomers


Generation X: Born between 1965 – 1980

Gen X nurses are the sandwich generation who may have boomer parents and boomerang millennials living with them, which is why they escape by scrolling Facebook. They provided care through the horrific AIDS crisis and resentfully adopted universal precautions for PPE and wearing gloves to start an IV. They implemented the EHR and are finally appreciating the value of AI, but only if it makes their care-planning lives easier and helps predict that their patient needs intervention before they decompensate.

They experienced the fear of going to work on 9/11/01 despite not knowing how far the terrorists planned their attacks that day or how their families would fare without them should the worst come. These are our experienced nurses and nursing leaders who were rarely given guidance (let alone mentorship) on how to manage or lead in the ever-changing environment of healthcare. 

Millennial (AKA Gen Y): Born between 1981 – 1996

These nurses have witnessed their parents' corporate layoffs and talk of the elimination of social security their whole lives, so they are less inclined toward company and government loyalty. They choose experiences and travel over new cars and material items until it comes to their mobile devices, which are always connected and running like a bag of TPN with lipids. Some of these nurses also know the pains of EHR implementation but embraced the keyboarding and technology faster than did past generations.

They also entered the workforce during the schizophrenic there’s-a-nursing-shortage-but-you-can’t-get-a-job-as-a-new-grad recession. These are our emerging leaders who need to glean the Boomer knowledge before the silver tsunami of retirement sweeps it away to be lost forever (okay, maybe that's a little dramatic). Millennials make exceptional travel nurses as it feeds their wanderlust and “What’s next?” attitude for new experiences. 

generational perspectives in nursing millennials


Generation Z (or iGeneration): Born between 1997 – 2012

Okay Boomer, it's time to embrace the Zoomer: the most ethnically and racially diverse generation, this group embodies, embraces, and expects globalization in the current socially connected and media-transparent universe. Gen Zers have always had access to immediate information, whether good or bad, and the generational imprint of the technology environment remains to be judged as overall positive or negative.

These are the fresh, new faces of nursing who may have received most of their clinical experience in a sim-lab and completed many of their prerequisites (and even nursing courses) online. They are comfortable allowing AI to drive practice but could be terrified of actually touching and interacting with patients. While all new nurses need strong preceptors, this generation needs hands-on mentoring with frequent feedback, which they crave.

They are relationship-driven and are less likely to understand (or follow) the chain-of-command hierarchy in medicine. Not only will Zers NOT give up their seat, but they will also be the generation to demand a seat at the healthcare table of change as an equal care partner.

So, where does this leave us?

If you identify as a Boomer or a Gen Xer, you need not fear the seeming irreverence of the younger generations (in fact, you should not, just as they should not take lightly your experience). Embrace their bold expectations for the nurse's place in the organization and support their idealistic attitudes on collaboration and teamwork. 

Yes, their cell phones are an appendage, but this is how they communicate with one another and how they reference material and information. It’s your job to teach them how to infuse technology to the bedside (using valid online sources), connect with patients and families, and effectively communicate in the ever-changing world of healthcare.

As a group, you hold thousands of years of nursing nuances and stories that are at risk of retiring alongside you, which we cannot afford to lose. Who knows, perhaps in the process of imparting your pearls of wisdom, you will learn something from them as well. If you're interested in getting even deeper into this topic, check out brand new research published by our very own Founding Clinician, Sarah Gray, RN, BSN.

Whichever generation you're a part of, maybe it's time to consider travel nursing! Speak with your very own Nurse Advocate today!