How to Deal with Generation Gaps in Nursing

By Nanette Wiser, contributor

For the first time in history, four generations of nurses are working together. This new dynamic has created challenging issues in the workplace as each generation battles for control.

The generation gap may cause nursing issues

As a travel nurse focused on your career, you want to get along with your colleagues, no matter what age or ethnic background. But yesterday, you saw Joyce and Anna sparring again. Joyce is a new nurse with a tattoo. Anna is a veteran, taking care of her kids and her parents. Both are good nurses, but they just can’t get along. It makes for a tense environment where productivity is replaced by antipathy.

Without a roadmap for navigating the generation gaps, patient care will decline and talented nurses will grow frustrated and leave. It’s up to hospitals and nursing leadership to create a workplace where generational differences are recognized and valued rather than despised.

Four Generations, Four Personality Styles
With nurses working past 60 and nursing a hot career for young people, the mix of generations on a unit are at an all-time high. The generation gap may cause nursing issues that interfere with teamwork and communication. Nurses must understand generational differences without resorting to stereotypes. For example, a tattoo or nose piercing does not mean a new nurse is a slacker. 

 Here are the styles and expectations of each generation:

•  Traditionalists (born pre-1945):  Fiercely loyal, patriotic, and hard working. Prefer feedback privately and often anticipate bad news. Will work hard to correct deficiencies.
•  Baby boomers (1946-1964):  Idealistic, optimistic, and competitive. Most productive of the generations. Hardworking and driven by financial security. Prefer feedback privately but praise publicly. Will correct deficiencies. Prefer face-to-face communications, less formal than traditionalists.
•  Generation Xers (1965-1980): Highly independent, skeptical, and entrepreneurial. Techno-savvy, prefer email or texting short and to the point. Take criticism poorly. Less loyal to the organization and less tolerant of authority, but flexible to change.
•  Millennials/Generation Y (1981-1999): Globally aware, realistic, altruistic, and practical. Prefer text/social media/Twitter over talking/emailing. Difficulty with constructive criticism; enjoy public praise. Used to taking advice.

One common concern shared by all generations? The desire for a reasonable workload and manageable nurse-to-patient ratio.

Intergenerational mentoring is one way to bridge the generation gap in nursing

Reducing Generation Gaps & Nursing Issues
The first step to getting along? Learn each generation’s culture, which affects how an individual prefers to communicate and work. Add a dose of respect and patience, set the tone for tolerance and be a leader in solving generation gap issues. Leave the old school prejudices about a generation’s competency at the door.

Find out what your healthcare institution is doing to promote generation gap nursing issues. More and more, hospital leaders are introducing new ways of proactively resolving generation gap problems including:

•  Introducing intergenerational mentoring.
•  Replacing career ladders with matrices allowing Xers and millennials to move upward and side-to-side.
•  Make it everyone’s job to change and adapt to the requirements of the profession, not just the younger generations.
•  Training on intergenerational strengths and the advantages of diversity to support generational harmony.
•  Creating generation-specific ways to motivate individuals to increase individual and unit productivity.


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