Overview and Summary: The Multigenerational Workforce: Boomers and Xers and Nets, Oh MY!

  • Mary K. Anthony, PhD, RN, CS
    Mary K. Anthony, PhD, RN, CS

    Dr. Anthony is currently Associate Professor in Nursing at Kent State University. She additionally holds an adjunct associate professor appointment at Case Western Reserve University. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree from St. John College and her Master of Science and PhD from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

    Dr. Anthony’s program of research has worked to create a body of knowledge describing how nursing care delivery systems in hospitals are structured and how practices, developed within those systems, influence clinical outcomes. Her research and scholarship has focused in three specific areas of care delivery: decision making, nursing practice models, and interactions among health care team members. This program of research emerged from her early experience as a nurse administrator where she observed that some untoward events (e.g. patient falls) were attributed to nurse assignment patterns. At that time there was little evidence linking the structure and practice of nursing care delivery to clinical outcomes. She has received federal, private, and foundational funding to address these issues and has published a number of articles in this field.

The nursing workforce is experiencing a unique time in its history. It can be characterized as being age diverse as it includes nurses recruited directly from high school, those entering nursing as second careers, and nurses nearing retirement. Collectively then, nurses in this diverse workforce, with differing worldviews, are challenged to work side by side. Ironically, the health of the work environment is now recognized as being a major force in recruitment, retention, and outcomes, and has been most notably influenced by the Magnet initiative (McClure & Hinshaw, 2002). Leadership, communication, and cohesion are but a few of the characteristics that a growing body of evidence is supporting as being important to healthy and effective workplaces (Aiken, Sloane, Lake, Sochalski, & Weber, 1999; Anthony, Brennan, O’Brien, & Suwannaroop, 2004; Anthony et al., 2005; DiMeglio et al., 2005; Force, 2005; Heath, Johnson, & Blakek, 2004; Leiter & Laschinger, 2006; Leveck & Jones, 1996; Shader, Broom, Broome, West & Nash, 2001; Tauton, Boyle, Woods, Hansen, & Bott, 1997). The five articles in this OJIN topic address different but equally important issues regarding the importance of creating a healthy work environment and leading and educating nurses across generations. Despite the similarity across several of the articles in addressing the worldviews of each generation, the descriptions provide unique insights which, when taken together, portray a holistic view of how each generation has developed its own perspective and what that specifically means to the workplace and educational environment.

Weston comprehensively describes the socio, political, and cultural norms that have shaped the worldviews and values for each of the four generational cohorts. She expands this discussion by identifying how three contemporary factors have influenced the norms and nature of the relationships among generational cohorts in the workplace: 1) flattening of bureaucratic organizational structures, 2) transitioning of information acquisition from seeking the wisdoms of older colleagues to utilizing information technology and, 3) a shifting in the culture for peer to peer relationships from one of deference to one of assertiveness and interactiveness. Weston concludes by emphasizing that success in the 21st century will depend on creating cohesive teams where generational perspectives are not only accommodated but appreciated for the potential strength and contribution they bring to patient care.

Sherman discusses the unique leadership concerns associated with managing several generational cohorts. She begins by cautioning leaders not to engage in generational stereotyping and highlights the idea that successful leaders frame and appreciate the diversity in each generational cohort for both leading and for being lead. Sherman identifies the variation in traits of leaders from the Veteran, Baby Boomer, Generation X and Millennium generations. A concise summary of the evidence describing the benefits of a good relationship between leaders and staff is provided, along with a suggestion that all nurse leaders conduct a generational inventory. Leadership strategies for communication, coaching and motivation, and conflict resolution provide leaders with a usable roadmap for managing generational diversity. Sherman’s concluding remarks summarize how leaders can reframe generational differences to capitalize on the strengths that each cohort brings to the workplace.

Kupperschmidt describes multigenerational conflict as an underlying barrier in the existing workforce and provides a framework for understanding it. First, each generation’s unique worldview and the strengths each worldview brings to the workplace is described. These strengths, which are largely distinct and non-overlapping, are illustrated with simple but poignant examples highlighting the generational variation in "how to get the work done." The examples drive home the breadth and depth for potential conflict, the need for a model that addresses worldview diversity, and challenges for leadership. The second point Kupperschmidt makes describes how the respect and caring that nurses have for patients falls short when it comes to respect and caring for each other. She proposes a carefronting model of communication as a strategy to improve harmony among RNs that crosses multiple generations. Lastly, Kupperschmidt emphasizes the need for nursing leadership to create and support an environment that is built on care and respect.

In the fourth article, Skiba and Barton discuss the incongruence between the makeup of current students in higher education and the faculty teaching them. At the heart of this conundrum are differing goals, expectations, and teaching-learning styles. This informative article focuses on the learning style of Millenials in relation to digital literacy, methods for constructing knowledge, the perspective on learning as a collaborative social activity, the need for immediate feedback, and ability to connect and communicate. The compelling question for faculty then is what strategies are needed to adapt to Millenials learning style and do faculty possess this skill set? Examples describing a variety of technologically based teaching strategies for each of the Millennial characteristics listed above are provided. Faculty whose responsibility is to educate a diverse population of student learners are faced with the challenges of incorporating both technology-based and traditional methodologies in the virtual or physical classroom.

Stevenson, Randle, and Grayling provide a comprehensive characterization of workplace bullying. They present evidence from two studies, conducted in the United Kingdom, of student nurses’ experiences illustrating the scope of this negative workplace culture. Workplace bullying crosses all generations, is not gender specific, and includes patients. Stevenson and colleagues point out that the generational culture of bullying is part of the socialization of nurses: it is nurse to nurse, nurse to senior student, and senior student to junior student. The authors point out that bullying behavior is tolerated in order to "fit in". One provocative thought the authors discuss is that the culture of nursing supports bullying behavior in that a position of powerlessness is characteristic of both student and new nurses entering the organization. They are the most vulnerable to the manipulative behavior of bullying. Organizations have a responsibility to find solutions to this negative behavior, solutions which include procedures for reporting and a strong mentoring program.

Much of what has been presented provides us with a comprehensive background of what currently exists and what is needed. However, we need to apply what is theoretically known and go further in testing its effects on the workforce, patients, and others. While we are beginning to have a more thorough understanding of differing values among generations, we must ask whether those differences hold when it comes to taking care of patients. Does collaboration, decision making, and communication in nursing practice differ by generational cohort? How and when should models of caring and respectful communication be developed and implemented? How do leaders learn to manage four generations? Our mandate is to go beyond our intuitive understanding of the effects of generational issues by obtaining empirical evidence that these generational challenges affect nursing practice and the environment in which nurses’ work. Obtaining evidence that addresses the importance of healthy and effective work environments requires an increase in federal and private funding to support these initiatives.

You are invited to express your response to this Online Journal Issues in Nursing (OJIN) Multigenerational Workforce topic in the form of either a Letter to the Editor or through the development of an article. Through participation in either form of response, you will take advantage of a unique aspect of the Internet to actively participate in timely dialogue about a current nursing issue.

Mary K. Anthony, PhD, RN, CS
E-mail: manthony@kent.edu

© 2006 OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing
Article published May 31, 2006


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Anthony, M. K., Standing, T. S., Glick, J., Duffy, M., Paschall, F., & Sauer, M., Sweeney-Kosty, D., Modic, M. B., & Dumpe, M. (2005). Leadership and nurse Retention: The pivotal role of nurse managers. Journal of Nursing Administration, 35, 146-155.

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Citation: Anthony, M., (May 31, 2006). "Overview and Summary: The Multigenerational Workforce: Boomers and Xers and Nets, Oh MY!". OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. Vol. 11 No. 2, Overview and Summary.