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
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.