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Number of young nurses drops in 2021

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By: Rob Senior

For some time, we’ve read and heard about the impending nurse shortage due to factors concerning an aging workforce and baby-boomer generation retirements.

But now there’s evidence the problem goes beyond a single generation of nurses.

A recent report sponsored by the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The John A. Hartford Foundation, and UnitedHealth Group found that growth in the registered nurse workforce (in numbers) plateaued sometime between early 2020 and late 2021.

But more concerning still is that when extrapolating data over the entirety of 2021, the total supply of RNs decreased by more than 100,000. This number is easily the highest figure in the past 40 years.

Researchers compared this drop to the steady and consistent growth of the profession from the early 1980s until 2020, quoting figures including a threefold increase in number over that time (from just over 1 million nurses in 1982 to over 3.2 million in 2020.) At one point not too long ago, it could be said that 1% of the entire U.S. population was a registered nurse.

Now the fear is whether we are heading in the other direction. The reasons? It starts with the COVID-19 pandemic, but also extends to suspected culprits such as the elder generation of nurses moving into retirement. Some have moved up their timelines for retirement in the pandemic’s wake.

Other factors are related to the pandemic, such as extensive callouts, a need to leave the workforce to provide child care, and burnout.

But most worrisome is the number of RNS 35 years of age and over dropped a full 4 percent in 2021, more than twice the overall drop of 1.8 percent. The researchers say it won’t take long for the industry to feel these impacts.

“A sustained reduction in the number of younger age RNs would raise ominous implications for the future workforce,” the study reads.

“Because RNs typically remain working in nursing over their career, a reduction of younger RNs in the workforce would exert an impact that is felt over a generation, in contrast to a relatively modest reduction in long-run RN supply due to early retirement of the baby boomer RNs working into their 60s and 70s.”

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