Making a Mark with Millennial Nurses in 2018

By Jennifer Dixson Hoff

At Capella University, our School of Nursing and Health Sciences Advisory Board is comprised of leading health care leaders who provide practice-relevant insight on current and emerging industry trends. The board has recently discussed the challenges surrounding nurse engagement and retention, which we feel will remain major priorities for nursing leaders heading into the New Year. But, to understand these priorities moving forward, it’s important to take a step back and revisit where we’ve been.

A generational progression continues to unfold as millennials play a bigger and bigger role in the nursing workforce. Heading into next year, we feel that leaders in nursing and health care will want to think strategically about the positive impact millennials are having on organizational objectives – and how they can harness the qualities of these individuals to improve retention and engagement across the spectrum.

A Generational Evolution

Over the past few years, we’ve hit some key inflection points that define just how dominant the millennial generation has become in today’s workplace. Consider the trends outlined in recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data:

This evolution creates unique challenges for hospitals and health care organizations today. Like the generations before them, millennials are distinct in their views and priorities, and understanding their ideals can help health care leaders keep up with the changing workforce currents. Millennials also possess values and skill sets that are well-aligned for the nursing field today, attributes that organizations can use to advance their missions. 

The Millennial Make-Up

As a group, millennials are often misunderstood. A 2015 report by The Futures Company divides them into two distinct demographic clusters:

  • Emerging millennials – Born between 1988 and 1996, they were 12-20 years old in 2008 and account for about 40 million people (today they are 21-29 year olds).
  • Adult millennials – Born between 1979 and 1987, they were 21-29 years old in 2008 and are about 38 million strong (today they are 30-38 year olds).

Beginning in 2008, the Great Recession marked distinguishing events in the lives of many millennials. Some millennials were young children during the recession, perhaps seeing their parents and families struggle through financial challenges as a result. Many adult millennials were finishing college or just starting their careers during the recession and may have experienced job loss themselves. Both groups were impacted, but the contrast in their positions at the time underscores the vast scope of millennial age range and trajectories.

Perhaps shaped by their experiences during the Great Recession and other defining events from their upbringing, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks which they often remember in real-time, millennials have formed a viewpoint on work that is different from previous generations. As described in a 2016 Gallup study on millennials in the workplace, “For millennials, compensation is important and must be fair, but it’s no longer the driver. The emphasis for this generation has switched from paycheck to purpose.”

In addition to their evolution as a purpose-driven generation, the Gallup study reveals additional insight about some challenges facing millennial workers today: 

  • Millennials have the highest rates of unemployment and underemployment in the U.S., and only 29 percent of employed millennials are engaged at work.
  • Forty-four percent of millennials who report that their manager holds regular meetings with them are engaged, while only 20 percent of millennials who do not meet regularly with their managers are engaged.

These findings help to address potential misconceptions surrounding millennials as simply “job hoppers.” They may feel indifferent about their job when they’re not engaged, but that’s something hospitals and health care organizations can work to change.

Finding Cohesion 

As millennials today navigate their own challenges, from finding a job to facilitating engagement in the workplace, they are relatively optimistic about their future. According to the 2016 Northwestern Mutual’s Planning & Progress study, millennials are less likely than the general population of U.S. adults to anticipate more financial crises in the future. A large majority of millennials (86 percent) are also confident that they will achieve their financial goals.

This positive outlook, coupled with the markers outlined in the section above, align in a way that positions millennials well for careers in nursing and health care. While nursing jobs can be rewarding for many, burnout and quick turnover remain pervasive issues for many hospitals today. The millennial commitment to purpose, working towards something bigger than themselves, can serve as a catalyst in tackling the day-to-day grind to drive quality patient care. It’s a desire and mindset that can help them endure as they begin to approach their mid-career mark and take on more leadership roles. 

While millennials might demand more engagement than workers from older generations, boosting programs to get them more connected can help serve an organization’s overall nursing workforce. Establishing a mentorship program where millennials and Baby Boomer nurses are paired, for example, could prove to be mutually beneficial. A millennial nurse would likely benefit from the knowledge of an experienced Baby Boomer nurse, but being a first-generation digital native, the millennial might be able to share some technical expertise with her colleague in an increasingly technical field.

This tech savviness is a defining characteristic in millennials, one that organizations can certainly utilize in a health care landscape where innovation will continue to grow. It also serves as a platform for nursing leaders to meet their millennial employees on a common playing field that can complement strategies in nursing engagement and development. Modern education institutions and training programs today offer online courses, certifications, virtual assistantships and other sophisticated platforms tailored specifically for employers – resources that can be leveraged in a way that uniquely aligns with the needs and comfort level of millennial nurses.

Tying it all Together

There is not a one-size-fits all solution when it comes to solving the challenges surrounding the nursing workforce. As the times change, new generations come into the nursing field with their own unique personalities, priorities and ideals for the workplace. Rather than asking them to conform to traditional standards, nursing and health care leaders would be wise to embrace their unique identities and recalibrate the processes for which they look to engage and develop those employees. 

To take on this vision today, hospitals and health care organizations can look to incorporate a more customized strategy in appealing to millennial nurses. Taking their unique needs and strengths into account, nursing leaders can harness talents in a way that doesn’t alienate – but complements their colleagues and the overall organization.

At Capella, we feel it is increasingly important to embrace millennial voices and meet them on their terms. In a follow-up article, we will focus more on how nursing leaders can leverage new learning and educational programs to hone the talents of their modern workforce – setting themselves up for success when it comes to meeting and exceeding their engagement and retention goals for years to come.

Jennifer Dixson Hoff is Vice President and General Manager of the College of Nursing, Health, and Behavioral Sciences at Capella University.

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