The nursing workforce in the U.S. grew more rapidly than U.S. government forecasters predicted as baby-boomer nurses delayed retirement, a study found.
By 2012, there were 2.7 million registered nurses, 500,000 more than projected 12 years earlier, according to a study published in the journal Health Affairs. The government had expected a shortage of nurses as baby-boomers retired. Instead they're staying on the job years longer.
"It's a pretty substantial change," said David Auerbach, the study's lead author and policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, which conducted the study. "That nurses are working longer than they used to, it's something that people just didn't know. No one has put quantitative numbers to it."
The average nurse worked 14 years past the age of 50 by 2012, 2.5 years longer than they did before 1990. That's partially due to the income uncertainty created during the recession and not unique to nursing, the researchers said.
In addition, nursing education programs have more than doubled the number of graduates since 2002. Now, more than 750,000 nurses in the workforce are under 35 years old, compared to 500,000 a decade ago.
With about two-thirds of the nursing workforce older than 35 and many delaying retirement, however, jobs for new graduates in the field have been harder to come by.
Morgan Nuzzo, 26, graduated nursing school from New York University in May after switching careers. With a biology background, she worked for the federal government before switching to nursing, where she wanted face-to-face interaction with patients. She said it was harder than expected for her and her classmates to find work.
"All through nursing school they were telling us it was going to be fine," she said in a telephone interview. "Then as we got closer and closer to finishing, they said we should expect six to eight months to get a job in New York City."
Instead of working at a New York City hospital, Nuzzo left the area to work at a clinic in Virginia where she can get more time with patients in women's health, which was more suited to the field she wanted to practice.
"The job outlook seemed impossible in New York City," she said. "My husband and I agreed that we couldn't survive financially in New York while we waited for a hospital job to come through."
Auerbach said baby boomers will start to exit the industry in the next five years, opening up more jobs. He also said there's an opportunity to work in non-hospital settings as health care providers try to lower costs of care.
The study said demand for nurses may grow because of more coverage for health care through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as well as because of projected physician shortages and population growth and aging.
Auerbach also said because older nurses tend to leave hospitals for other settings, such as ambulatory care or nursing homes, a large number of them are looking to other venues of care.