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Across the Age Divide
How a melting pot of generational differences is shaping nursing.

blank Jeri Eichberg, Kelly Creighton Graham and Geneva Craig reflect on their nursing experiences across generations.
Jeri Eichberg, Kelly Creighton Graham and Geneva Craig reflect on their nursing experiences across generations.

Geneva Craig’s nearly 30 years in nursing and her experience lecturing on the profession’s intergenerational conflict has made her more than just a casual observer to the human drama that sometimes plays out between nurses of different ages. She came to recognize that with each new crop of nurses came new ways of communicating, learning, performing tasks and approaching the demands of work and family.

Frequently, these differences sparked clashes rather than opportunities for mutual gain, notes Craig, an appeals nurse analyst at Johns Hopkins HealthCare. In particular, she has witnessed many occasions when younger colleagues struggled for validation and support from their elders.      

“Baby boomers are the worst,” says Craig, in a critique of her generation. “We drive young people away by insisting that younger nurses pay the same dues—long hours, heavy patient loads and scutwork. But we can learn so much from the younger set. We have to stop dictating and start listening.”

Fostering good communication is all the more critical for a rapidly changing workforce that ranges in age from 20-somethings to 80-somethings, says Craig, whose career spans critical care, acute care and academia. “The most important message is to avoid stereotyping and to embrace the gifts each generation has to offer.” 

Contrasting expectations can be a common source of intergenerational disagreement within the nursing workforce. “In my day, nursing was a calling,” says Wilmer ED triage nurse Jeri Eichberg, 85. “The younger generation seems more concerned about the best hours and salary they can get.” And yet, Eichberg is delighted that nursing has finally achieved more salary parity and shift flexibility.

“The new generation is striving for better work-life balance, and that’s not a bad thing,” says Leah Yoder, a self-described “reformed boomer” who directs SPRING (Social and Professional Reality Integration for Nurse Graduates), the Johns Hopkins Hospital Department of Nursing program that pairs veteran nurses with novices. Now in its seventh year, SPRING is a focused, year-long orientation designed to close the divide between experienced nurses who received more hands-on practice during their education and younger nurses who are more technologically literate by highlighting the expertise each generation brings to the table. A similar program at Howard County General Hospital [see “A Year in Training,” page 4] supports new nurses as well.

Nurse managers must also accommodate evolving teaching strategies, Yoder says. Boomers are used to having people lecture to them, but newly minted nurses “thrive on interactive learning,” explains Yoder. “We’ve made a new agenda for educating this generation, with more focused sessions, like team-based project searches on the Internet.”

Formal programs are just one part of a multifaceted strategy for cultivating cooperation across the ages.

At 29, medical progressive care unit nurse Kelly Creighton Graham might be considered a Gen X-er, although one who inherited her boomer parents’ rigorous work habits. “What I’ve grown to learn,” says Graham, “is that being around people of all different ages makes for a more resourceful team.” As for the incoming grads, Graham is hopeful: “They bring a fresh, energetic approach and a good sense of humor.”

Graham, one of 30 nurses on her unit, started as a nurse clinician eight years ago. Now an NCIII overseeing eight nurses in their 20s to 50s, she argues that regardless of age, some people naturally adapt better. “There are young people who aren’t good at computers and old people who are great with them.” Graham has mentored many an older nurse who is having difficulty mastering software applications, but she knows she can turn to them when she has trouble starting an IV.

Carol Ware, 59, a QI team leader for Quality Improvement and Utilization Management, says that throughout her career she has found that younger nurses “look to us as mentors with lots of hands-on experience.” In return, younger nurses, “born with computers,” have helped her cross the digital divide. “Younger nurses gave back to me as much as I gave to them.”

As the nursing workforce ages and the faltering economy prompts nurses to postpone retirement, that’s as it should be, Yoder says: “Soon the younger set will outnumber us and become our bosses, so we’d better find more ways to transfer our knowledge and empower them.”

–Judy F. Minkove and Stephanie Shapiro



Johns Hopkins Medicine

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