How old is too old for nurses to practice their profession and excel in the workplace? Nursing today is more diverse than ever with its multigenerational setting. We can see old and new nurses working side by side with each other. Granted, age should never be an indicator of one's capacity to excel in their profession. However, stereotypes do exist and ageism in nursing is not an exception.

Stereotyping Both Old and Young

My first experience with ageism in nursing was as a recent graduate working in a surgical intensive care unit. I was recruited by my supervisor to teach a refresher course for nurses coming back into the workforce. The first day of class, as I was beginning my lecture, I spotted a hand waving in the back of the room. When I acknowledged her, she blurted out, “How old are you anyway?” Much to the student’s dismay, she discovered that I was born the year that she graduated from nursing school (I was 22).

My first teaching experience has a happy ending. The students and I formed a strong bond and they successfully transitioned back into their nursing careers. My story serves to bring home the message that ageism can affect both young inexperienced nurses and older experienced nursing professionals as well.

Defining Ageism

The term ageism was introduced by the first director of the National Institute on Aging in 1969 to describe a form of discrimination directed toward those who are considered old. Most recently, it has been defined as prejudicial stereotyping and negative attitudes towards individuals based on age.

Because we live in a society that is obsessed with youth and is youth-driven, ageism is rampant in our culture. This pervasive ageist attitude affects nurses profoundly because the nursing population is aging more profoundly than the workforce as a whole.

A national survey of registered nurses conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2008 revealed that for the first time in three decades, the youngest population of nurses increased which is helping to restock the pool of RNs. However, at the same time the older population of nurses continued to grow as well. Nearly 45 percent of RNs were 50 years of age or older in 2008, a dramatic increase from 33 percent in 2000 and 25 percent in 1980.

Challenging Stereotypes

Nurse recruiters are seeing a recent influx of more experienced nurses into the job market because of the declining economy. Many nurses have retired and now find themselves in a financial position where they have to return to work. The biggest obstacle for these candidates is the negative stereotype that the older nurses are less flexible and adaptable and therefore are difficult to train on new technology.

I have witnessed this negative stereotype while managing a group of utilization review nurses for a managed care company. The RN trainer for the concurrent review software commented to me that her class was moving slower than expected because of the number of older nurses in attendance. Not only is her ageist attitude destructive and harmful, but it is illegal as well.

Age is one of ten protected classifications in U.S. anti-discrimination law, such as race, disability and gender. Both state and federal laws prohibit discrimination based on age and protect employees from age-discrimination. The age discrimination in employment act prohibits discrimination against individuals seeking employment, starting at age 40 or older.

Sell Your Skills

If you are planning to extend your nursing career beyond 60, you will be faced with employment ads written with no regard to ageism. Many request 3 to 5 years of experience. They do not specify 15, 20 or 30 years of experience nor do they ask for 1 or 2 years of experience.

The average educated professional with 3 to 5 years of experience is going to be in his or her mid-20s to early-30s. Take heed and do not retreat! My survey of nurse recruiters reveals that they are witnessing a trend to hire older nurses into nurse management positions.

It is important to note that the candidates being hired have kept current in EMR technology and regulatory changes. They also demonstrate a very, positive, energetic demeanor when interviewing with a potential new employer.  Remember, no matter how much, or how little experience a nurse has, she has to “sell” the employer on her skills!

Whether you’re an old or new nurse, have you experienced ageism in nursing? Let us know what happened—leave your comment below.