Nursing through three generations
From white caps and crisp aprons to bright scrubs and sneakers, changes in nursing uniforms are easy to spot. But changing perceptions of the profession are not quite as obvious.
There are contrasts in how each generation views the nursing vocation, based on the social context in which each group grew up. Should nurses always be focused on patient care? What about pursuing more education and moving to higher positions?
Four nurses from MacEwan University reflect on their respective generation’s perception of nursing and how those ideas influenced their decision to step into scrubs.
Pauline Mitchell’s career path was really just a fork in the road—become a teacher, or become a nurse. She chose nursing and now works as an assistant professor at MacEwan’s Centre for Professional Nursing Education (CPNE).
At 53, she is at the tail-end of the baby boomers, who were typically born between 1946 and 1964. She says hers was a generation that still considered women to be best suited to a few limited career options, like teaching and nursing.
“I’m part of the era when a lot of people went to school with the idea that they’d only work until they got married,” says Pauline. “Nursing was seen as a good life skill, because it helped you know how to take care of your family.”
Despite this perception of nursing as a stepping stone to motherhood, Pauline says nurses were paid well and considered to be “good people,” because they were willing to take on difficult and unpleasant jobs.
“When I first became a nurse, you gave the bath, you assessed the patient, you administered medication and you worked with the doctor. You did it all. Now, nurses aren’t expected to give someone a bath or toilet them,” says Pauline.
She adds that she and her generational peers were trained to offer “complimentary comforts,” like rubbing a patient’s back if they were in pain.
“ I never went into it saying ‘I’m going to change the world,’ but I did find it incredibly powerful to help a patient and a family.”
Jennifer Farrell, a generation X nurse practitioner who teaches online classes for MacEwan, agrees with Pauline. “The generation before us is more focused on caring,” says Jennifer. “They’re used to a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
Pauline realizes how the perception of nurses as caring people influenced her and her peers’ decision to choose the profession. “When we were in school, my friends and I wanted to work with people and make a difference,” she says. “I never went into it saying ‘I’m going to change the world,’ but I did find it incredibly powerful to help a patient and a family.”
The Trail Blazer
Jennifer, 37, calls herself an “’80s baby,” and was born at the end of generation X, which includes those born between 1965 and 1985. When she graduated from high school, people viewed nursing as a flexible, mobile career.
Many generation X nurses tend to link their choice of profession to career opportunities. A 2003 study from Vanderbilt University asked nearly 500 nursing students how they perceived the profession; it found 92 per cent of students agreed nursing was a good career for those who wanted a secure job.
“We were focused on the independence we could find as nurses,” says Jennifer. “In comparison with the baby boomers, who only had a few avenues to take, we saw nursing as an investment in our career.”
Fellow gen-Xer Kathryn Ozum, 40, agrees. “When I graduated from high school, I could do anything. It was no holds barred on what a woman could do anymore!”
Kathryn, who works as the academic coordinator for CPNE, remembers a university nursing advisor “painting rainbows on the walls” as she described the benefits of becoming a nurse—from career flexibility to the possibility of travel.
Both Jennifer and Kathryn chased these newly available opportunities, becoming nurse practitioners and holding a variety of positions throughout their careers. Jennifer worked as a practicing RN, a nurse practitioner, and now works as a health services leader at Dow Chemical, a position formerly reserved for doctors.
Kathryn also started her career as an RN, but she then tried occupational health nursing and emergency nursing before moving on to teaching. “I love the mobility of it. It’s really allowed me to branch off and work in so many different areas of nursing.”
At 21, and in her fourth year of nursing at MacEwan, Pauline’s daughter Abby Mitchell is a millennial, part of the generation born between 1986 and 1997, but she is close to the dividing line between millennials and generation Z.
Watching Abby pursue her career, Pauline sees just how dramatically perceptions of nursing have changed. Pauline says her own father was skeptical about whether a university education was valuable for women, and she is thankful Abby’s choice is now valued by society.
“Because it’s so hard to get into nursing, we now see nurses as extremely bright people who come into the field [and are] more aware of the knowledge they have,” explains Pauline. “Nurses are seen as bigger thinkers.”
The shift in how nursing is perceived may be the new reality, but this understanding seems to have surfaced only in recent years. In the Vanderbilt study, only half of the generation X students believed nursing was a respected career.
“ I knew nursing was going to make me a better person.”
Abby’s personal experiences support this noteworthy change. She laughingly explains how her friends text her photos of their bruises and sprains, asking for advice.
“When people have an experience in health care, they see the nurse as a person with knowledge and resources,” says Abby. “The people I work with are smart, confident and they have the ability to analyze situations.”
With this new, widespread admiration for nursing, Abby and her fellow millennial nurses seem to be choosing the profession with idealistic high hopes for their careers. While she finds this approach is sometimes interpreted as entitlement or naïveté by older generations, who may see idealism as a misunderstanding of the practical expectations of the job, Abby explains her motivations.
“I knew nursing was going to make me a better person,” she says. “My friends and I were seeking a greater understanding of humanity and how we could contribute. I was looking for meaningful experiences with people.”
Abby loves hearing patients’ stories, and finds them heart-wrenching, inspiring and humbling. “I was looking for something that feels right, and nursing makes me feel like I’ve won the lottery.”
Spanning the generational gaps
Despite changing perceptions of their profession, all four nurses spoke about the value in combining their diverse knowledge and experiences to succeed as a nursing team.
As the academic coordinator at CPNE, Kathryn works with nurses of all ages and finds there are notable similarities across the board: “Nurses are caring. They have a desire to help others, and just a bit of perfectionism, so things get done right.”
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