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How Nurse Leaders Can Combat Ageism in the Workplace

NurseJournal Staff
Updated June 22, 2023
    Combating ageism in the nursing workplace will help you retain staff and avoid lawsuits. Learn what nurse leaders can do to create an inclusive environment.
    An older and younger nurse looking at a tablet togetherCredit: Getty Images
    • In 2020, the average age among RNs was 52.
    • Retaining older nurses will be key to workforce management and ensuring a transfer of experience and wisdom to newer nurses.
    • Combating ageism in the workforce will help retain older nurses, position them as mentors, and avoid lawsuits.

    If you are a nurse leader, maintaining an adequate workforce is probably one of your biggest concerns. You can help retain nurses by combating ageism in the nursing workforce and leveraging both experience and new entrants as strengths. Explore ways to make your organization a welcoming and inclusive environment for nurses of all ages.

    The Aging Nursing Workforce

    There is a growing shortage of nurses, especially in the western states. As more nurses are considering retirement or retiring, the demand for healthcare and nurses is rising to address the needs of the aging Baby Boomer generation.

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, many nurses, including younger ones, left the nursing field. In 2021, nearly 2% of nurses left the workforce. By age, 4% of nurses under 35 left, while only 1% of nurses over 50 left. This means even fewer nurses will be available as older nurses move into retirement age.

    Ageism in the Workplace

    Ageism or age discrimination is discrimination against a worker because of their age. Examples of ageism include salary discrepancies not related to qualifications, lack of opportunities for promotion or other advancement, or a hostile work environment that allows bullying or misplaced humor, solely because of age. An AARP survey found that almost 2 out of 3 respondents aged 45 and older have experienced ageism in the workplace and among those — of those respondents, 91% believe that ageism is common.

    Ageism, like other forms of discrimination, is often rooted in unconscious bias. For example, an administrator might unconsciously assume that younger nurses will be better at learning and using new technology than older nurses, have more energy and learn faster, or that they are less dedicated to work than their older counterparts.

    How Nurse Leaders Can Combat Ageism in the Workplace

    Nurse leaders are responsible for fostering an inclusive working environment where people of all ages can contribute and flourish. You can achieve this by implementing a conscious inclusion strategy in hiring, management, professional development, and culture. These are some strategies that can help you achieve those goals.

    Hire a diverse pool of employees

    Search for talent everywhere and keep diversity in mind when looking for candidates. Sometimes looking for “cultural fit” means looking for candidates who are just like existing staff. Instead, when reviewing resumes and conducting interviews, look for ways that candidates can enrich the culture and add diversity.

    Be aware of unconscious bias

    The stereotypes of the child or young adult having to fix a parent’s computer, associating youth with energy and vigor, assuming that older adults struggle to learn new things, and that the whiz kid knows better than the older “suits” are pervasive in the media. Similarly, nearly every generation seems to believe that the next generations are less enthusiastic, less respectful, less dedicated to work, and less responsible. Watch for these assumptions in yourself and others.

    Avoid using language or humor that demeans either age or youth

    All too often, somebody who forgets something refers to it as “a senior moment.” People, especially women, over a certain age are sometimes referred to as “past their prime.” These and other sayings such as “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” reinforce the idea that older adults are slower and more forgetful. Similarly, phrases like “kids these days” or “people don’t want to work hard anymore” unjustly stereotype youth. Avoid using phrases like these, even in fun, and discourage their use by others.

    Establish and model inclusive practices

    You can model inclusivity of all ages by avoiding using age, consciously or unconsciously, as a basis for decisions. For example, avoid assuming that an older applicant will necessarily demand more money or is overqualified. Make sure that all employees have access to professional advancement, both formal and informal.

    Encourage nurses to learn from one another, especially while onboarding

    Sometimes experienced nurses engage in hazing or otherwise bullying of onboarding nurses. Make it clear to everybody what hazing is and why it is not tolerated. Many nurses who engage in hazing or bullying were themselves hazed or bullied as young nurses, so they need to relearn how to onboard new nurses.

    Nurses new to the field have the advantage of coming to work with recent learning and newer approaches, while experienced nurses have the advantage of more experience and on-the-job learning. Combined, these backgrounds create the ideal workforce. You can foster learning and exchanges by encouraging and establishing mentoring, mutual coaching, and other strategies to ensure each nurse learns from other nurses, of all ages.

    What Nurses Can Do to Combat Ageism

    Every nurse can combat ageism in the workplace through practicing conscious inclusion, being aware of unconscious bias, and addressing ageism when they see it. Unlike race or sexual orientation, many workplaces tolerate ageist humor, such as “over the hill” decorations at birthday parties or jokes about aging. You can address this by saying, gently, that while participants take it in good humor and genuinely find it funny, it could be interpreted by others as creating a hostile working environment.

    Be aware of how ageism can surface, including in assumptions about learning and technology aptitude, energy levels, and hazing, bullying, or exclusion. Combating ageism in the workforce means you must be ready to find and stop it before it can become part of the culture.

    If you foster a culture where everyone of every age is included and welcomed, this can help you fight staff turnover and retain your best staff. It will not always be easy but it will be rewarding, just like nursing itself.