A decade ago, public health officials predicted a nursing shortage beginning anywhere from the middle to the end of the current decade. Yet, the registered nurse (RN) workforce has grown rapidly since 2002, surpassing anticipated levels and rising as high as 2.7 million in 2012. While many researchers attribute this pleasant surprise to a surge in new nursing graduates, one research team believes the size of the workforce also reflects changes in retirement ages. “We found that RNs have extended their working careers over time,” wrote the authors in the conclusion of their new study published in Health Affairs.

To explore this matter, researchers gathered data on nurses’ ages, employment status, and hours worked from the Current Population Survey, a go-to dataset used by the Department of Labor, and the American Community Survey. After compiling the numbers, the team performed their analysis and considered the results. Slightly less than half of RNs working at age 50 were still working at age 62 in the years between 1969 and 1990. Yet, from 1991 through 2012, nearly three quarters of the nurses were still working at age 62. “In 2012 an employed 50-year-old RN would be likely to work an average of 14.0 more years, whereas a comparable RN before 1990 would have been likely to work another 11.5 years,” the authors wrote.

According to the study, then, this trend of delaying retirement increased the RN workforce by about 136,000 people in 2012. Why older RNs extend their careers is unknown, still their motivation may be part of an overall employment trend. More Americans, particularly women, are remaining in the workforce longer these days because of increased life expectancies — and associated fears of out-living their savings — while other nurses simply derive a great deal of satisfaction from their careers. Along with offsetting a nursing shortage, this trend may also offer another benefit.

Many RNs tend to shift out of hospital settings as they age, the authors explain, so employers in non-hospital organizations may welcome these experienced if older nurses. After all, new technologies may be used (or developed) to accommodate these 50-plus nurses. Speculating on this theme for Medical Daily, Dr. Peter I. Buerhaus of Vanderbilt University Medical Center imagines "acquiring technology that helps lift and move patients in hospital beds/exam rooms or wherever care is given that reduces risk of nurse’s injury... certain technology could improve the ability to read (forms, computer screen, information on medications)." He also suggests redesigning the configuration of a patient’s room and the nursing unit as a whole to decrease the amount of walking during an eight or 12 hour shift.

"Many of these older RNs  possess years of accumulated knowledge and experience that benefit patients and quality of care," Buerhaus told Medical Daily in an email. "So it makes sense to retain them for as long as possible." Undoubtedly, many patients would agree.

Source: Auerbach DI, Buerhaus PI, Staiger DO. Registered Nurses Are Delaying Retirement, A Shift That Has Contributed To Recent Growth In The Nurse Workforce. Health Affairs. 2014.