At this time in history, there are four generations currently working within the nursing profession. Although this diversity can be seen as a positive aspect of our collective culture, it is easy to understand that there is also room for misunderstanding and mistrust between the generations. This perceived generation gap is well worth our attention and positive intervention.

The generations

The generations currently active in the nursing profession include those born during the 1920s, 1930s and early 1940s, sometimes referred to as The Silent Generation or The Veteran Generation; the Baby Boomer Generation, born more or less between 1945 and 1960; Generation X, born between 1960 and 1980; and the Millennial Generation, born between 1980 and 2000.

These four generations all came of age under significantly different economic, social, political and cultural influences and conditions. Taking these differences into account can be an important aspect of creating and navigating a harmonious workplace culture. Without consciousness of these differences, schisms and divides can cause disruption and bad feelings that permeate the workplace.

What differences?

If you take a superficial view of the generations of nurses employed within the 2014 healthcare landscape, one might not immediately see anything to get excited about. Whatever their ages, nurses care for patients, chart the care that they've performed, interact with colleagues and otherwise go about their day like nurses have for decades.

However, look deeper, and you’ll see differences that underscore the disparate worlds from which nurses of various generations have come.

Veteran Generation nurses were born at a time when World War II and the Great Depression were culturally shared experiences that strongly shaped their world and outlook. In contrast, members of the Millennial Generation were born in the 1980s and 1990s, their lives shaped by the rise of the Internet, the more recent economic recession, and vastly different family structures and cultural norms of communication, friendship and relationship.

Respect for authority, workplace hierarchies and notions of workplace loyalty have also changed categorically over the years. For instance, for those born in the 1940s, it is normal for a loyal worker to expect to be employed by the same company or facility for many decades — if not for an entire career.

Whereas, for a worker born in the 1980s or later, there is no question that a career will be constructed from multiple employment opportunities, or perhaps nursing may be one of several careers in which the worker is employed over the course of his or her lifetime.

When it comes to technology and communication, we can also find a great divide between generations of nurses. Many older nurses have found it challenging to make the switch from paper charting to electronic medical records. For those born in the 1990s or later, charting by hand may seem like an antiquated notion from another time, which in many cases, it is.

The differences are obviously vast, and there are far too many to accurately catalog here. From tattoos and piercings, to family structure and the ways we make friends and communicate, nurses experience (and behaviorally manifest) a generation gap as vast as any other societal group.

Where the (generational) rubber hits the road

In the workplace, styles of communication and leadership can rule the day when it comes to intergenerational understanding and cooperation.

Savvy managers can tap younger nurses’ facility with technology while also honoring older nurses’ grasp of the historical changes that directly impact the quality of patient care. It is also important to recognize that older nurses are holders of critical institutional knowledge that can be utilized in positive ways.

Meanwhile, the recognition of differences between generations in terms of communication can assist in fostering increased harmony. Whereas a nurse born in 1995 may prefer to be contacted by a manager via text message, an older nurse from another generation might prefer a written note or a phone call.

When it comes to workplace hierarchies, nurses from the Veteran Generation grew up at a time when older workers were usually the ones in charge, while younger workers slowly worked their way up the chain of command.

For younger nurses, it might not be surprising when a 38-year-old nurse with a bachelors degree rises quickly to a position of responsibility, supervising diploma nurses who were educated in hospital schools during the 1950s and 1960s. This is certainly a recipe for culture clash and potential resentments.

Awareness of the perceptions, beliefs and cultural assumptions of members from different generations of nurses can assist nurse managers, nurse leaders — and nurses themselves — in navigating the potential minefield of intergenerational conflict and misunderstanding.

Sensitivity to, and awareness of, different ways of viewing workplace hierarchies and communication can grease the wheels of nurse-to-nurse relationships.

Especially when prompted by intelligent and forward-thinking leaders, nurses of different generations can actually learn to recognize one another’s strengths, lean on one another for support and create symbiotic cross-generational relationships that strengthen, rather than weaken, the nursing culture in a facility or institution.

Millennials, boomers, Generation X’ers and members of the Veteran Generation have much to offer one another, and this diversity can be actively leveraged to improve patient outcomes and strengthen nurse-to-nurse relationships across the generations.