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Generational Conflict in Nursing

New nurses may face workplaces rife with generational clashes. Learn how to relate to colleagues and navigate potential minefields.

Generational Conflict in Nursing

Generational Conflict in Nursing

When you begin your first nursing job, you'll encounter colleagues from four generations -- generations with differing and sometimes colliding values. Don't let these disparities sidetrack your career. By understanding your coworkers, you'll appreciate what they have to offer and create productive working relationships.

Hidden Diversity

The average nurse today is a 46-year-old white woman, so it's no surprise that "nursing is often seen as a middle-age white woman's job," says Barbara Brown, PhD, RN, vice president of the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association (VHHA).

But what the nursing workforce lacks in diversity of age, race and gender, it makes up for with a "diversity which may not be obvious at first -- diversity of thought," says Justin Lombardo, chief learning executive for Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Lombardo has seen nurse managers struggle to meet each generation's differing expectations and diffuse the tension caused by clashing views. His advice to anyone entering nursing is to work toward understanding each of the four generations, valuing their differences and relating effectively to each generation.

The Silent Generation

Born between 1927 and 1946, these nurses delight their superiors with their nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and depth of experience. Raised by an authoritarian, military model of instruction, they do their jobs and don't complain.

These traditionalists can be put off by appearances such as tattoos and body piercings. Younger nurses can allay this discomfort by verbally affirming their commitment to the profession and patient care, says Brown.

The Baby Boomers

Hospital administrators and nursing supervisors tend to be female members of this generation, born between 1946 and 1964. These women invented the 60-hour workweek and define themselves largely by their jobs, often equating work with self-worth. They believe in working hard, paying their dues and being loyal to the organization.

Younger nurses should not expect nurturing, support and coaching from a Boomer boss, says Brown, a Boomer herself who, prior to joining the VHHA in 1993, held numerous nursing positions, including staff nurse, charge nurse and nurse educator. All too often, Boomers view their administrative role as dealing with papers and pencils instead of people and perceptions, she explains.

To help them relate to Boomer managers, younger nurses can clarify their responsibilities by asking simple questions, such as, "I understand my assignment to be XYZ. What time do I need to be finished? Who can help me if I run into problems? What are the signs I am in trouble?"

Generation X

Born between 1965 and 1981 to working mothers, Gen Xers are the first latchkey generation. Because they were left alone, these workers tend to be independent and prefer to figure things out by themselves.

When managing Xers, describe the objective, supply the tools to achieve it and then let them devise their own solution, Brown suggests. In turn, Xers can assure their bosses that they understand the job to be done, but then ask if there are any pieces that absolutely must be done a certain way. Xers, who balk at taking on hefty responsibilities, can suggest breaking down a big job into smaller steps, such as creating a team to run the unit.


Millennial nurses, born after 1982, are more racially diverse than previous generations, welcome structure and can't function without technology.

Before taking a job, Millennials should make sure the position and employer are a good fit by asking which technologies an employer uses. "It's very hard for Boomers to understand this technology issue, because most Boomers used the original Palm Pilot, which was when they took the patient's vital signs and wrote them on their wrist," Brown says.

On the job, nurses should ask what their manager's expectations are for the first six months. "Make sure that what HR told you is what your manager expects," Brown advises.

Millennials can also ask for immediate feedback, end-of-shift briefings and coaching. At the request of her staff, most of whom where Millennials, Valarie Amos, RN, a manager at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, introduced an informal mentorship program to follow the hospital's formal preceptorship.

Combined with open communication and lots of informational meetings, the program helped Amos achieve a high unit retention rate and earn her staff's respect. "When a patient was crashing during a code, I didn't have time for nurses to question me," says Amos, now Northwestern's director of staffing resources.

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