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Back To Vidyya Where Have All The Nurses Gone?

Original JAMA Contribution: Implications Of An Aging Registered Nurse Workforce

Peter I. Buerhaus, PhD, RN; Douglas O. Staiger, PhD; David I. Auerbach, MS

Context  The average age of registered nurses (RNs), the largest group of health care professionals in the United States, increased substantially from 1983 to 1998. No empirically based analysis of the causes and implications of this aging workforce exists.

Objectives  To identify and assess key sources of changes in the age distribution and total supply of RNs and to project the future age distribution and total RN workforce up to the year 2020.

Design and Setting  Retrospective cohort analysis of employment trends of recent RN cohorts over their lifetimes based on US Bureau of the Census Current Population Surveys between 1973 and 1998. Recent workforce trends were used to forecast long-term age and employment of RNs.

Participants  Employed RNs aged 23 to 64 years (N = 60,386).

Main Outcome Measures  Annual full-time equivalent employment of RNs in total and by single year of age.

Results  The average age of working RNs increased by 4.5 years between 1983 and 1998. The number of full-time equivalent RNs observed in recent cohorts has been approximately 35% lower than that observed at similar ages for cohorts that entered the labor market 20 years earlier. Over the next 2 decades, this trend will lead to a further aging of the RN workforce because the largest cohorts of RNs will be between age 50 and 69 years. Within the next 10 years, the average age of RNs is forecast to be 45.4 years, an increase of 3.5 years over the current age, with more than 40% of the RN workforce expected to be older than 50 years. The total number of full-time equivalent RNs per capita is forecast to peak around the year 2007 and decline steadily thereafter as the largest cohorts of RNs retire. By the year 2020, the RN workforce is forecast to be roughly the same size as it is today, declining nearly 20% below projected RN workforce requirements.

Conclusions  The primary factor that has led to the aging of the RN workforce appears to be the decline in younger women choosing nursing as a career during the last 2 decades. Unless this trend is reversed, the RN workforce will continue to age, and eventually shrink, and will not meet projected long-term workforce requirements.

JAMA. 2000;283:2948-2954

Author/Article Information

Author Affiliations: Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, Nashville, Tenn (Dr Buerhaus); Department of Economics, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH (Dr Staiger); and National Bureau of Economic Research (Dr Staiger and Mr Auerbach) and Program in Health Policy, Harvard University (Mr Auerbach), Cambridge, Mass.

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