The Real Reason Why Older Nurses Don’t Retire

By Julianna Paradisi. All rights reserved.

Snow Tops/ by Julianna Paradisi

Julianna Paradisi, who blogs at JParadisi RN and elsewhere, works as an infusion nurse in outpatient oncology. Her artwork has appeared several times in AJN, and her essay, “The Wisdom of Nursery Rhymes,” was published in the February 2011 issue.

I hate to break this news to new graduate nurses struggling to find jobs, but the real reason that older nurses don’t retire isn’t—as you may have been led to believe—the struggling economy. The reason is that a large percentage of retirement-aged nurses enjoy working. As a middle-generation nurse, I’m coming to grips with this reality myself.

Many of my longtime colleagues are old enough to retire. When they do, they often retain on-call status. They never really go away. It’s weird to attend a retirement party for a coworker and then see her or him again the next day at work, helping out with a special project for their manager.

This trend among older nurses was also in evidence at a meeting I recently attended. Most of those present were nurse managers. Although a few were younger than me, most were older, sporting hipster eyeglass frames and sophisticated bob haircuts that left their natural silver.

These men and women are a testament to the profession’s development of strong, consistent leadership. Seated around the table, they suggested to me an image of Oregon’s snow-topped Cascade mountain range. And like a majestic mountain range, they represent a barrier for younger nurses desiring to take their places around that table.

Older nurses are not abandoning high acuity specialty units either. Age, once a factor in the decision to transfer into lower acuity units, is now offset by technologies that make staying easier. For example, monitors that record ICU patients’ vital signs directly into the electronic medical record save steps and energy. Smart pumps now calculate complex infusion drip rates. Hoyer lifts reduce back and muscle strain, previously a destroyer of many a nurse’s career longevity. If reimplemented, eight-hour shifts will further lengthen these careers. Also, Baby Boomers take better care of their health and receive better health care than past generations. These circumstances make it easier than ever before to delay retirement.

While younger nurses laugh at their older coworkers’ use of Zoolander-sized flip phones for text messaging (remember when we expected that cell phones would get smaller?), these older colleagues have been busy completing online master’s degrees during lunch breaks or at home while their families watch Downton Abbey. They take evening courses; earn doctorates of nursing, NP licensure, and FAAN status. Through networking, they move into leadership positions created especially by and for nurses: managers, navigators, discharge planners, and house supervisors. They’ve worked hard for these career accomplishments, and despite their advancing age, retirement is not yet a concern.

I’m not the only person observing this trend of older nurses staying in the workforce. According to this article, the vice president/CNO of Holy Family Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin reported in 2011 that the average age of the nursing staff at her hospital was 47, saying the following:

“A big piece is economic. But a lot of them love what they do. . . They’re saying ‘I don’t want to give everything up. I would just like not such a hectic pace, maybe work four-hour shifts. Maybe do education for patients or staff, different types of roles.'”

I used to joke about the nursing shortage forecasts, saying, “As long as I have a pulse and a stethoscope, I’ll have a job.” With the advances in nursing over the last two decades, perhaps this is more prophecy than jest.

2017-01-26T12:35:09+00:00 March 25th, 2013|career, Nursing|24 Comments

About the Author:

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, finds inspiration where science, humanity, and art converge, creating compelling images as both a writer and a painter. She is the author of, and also blogs frequently for and, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing (AJN).


  1. Joe April 20, 2017 at 1:37 am

    Older nurses not retiring is problem for everyone, not just new nurses. From my experience older nurses will not take a smaller salary (due to experience). This in turn closes the door to new nurses. At the same time the longer older nurses stay at their positions on the top of ladder, the longer everyone suffers without being promoted. Nurses talk about “caring for the patient,” or “caring for humanity.” But once they reach retirement age, they don’t want to retire. Where is you humanity now? Where is the understanding that a new crop of nurses needs that same spot??? Many will say, they love nursing and want something to do. You can love nursing and volunteer at a local shelter. I believe it is the love of a paycheck that keeps them working way past retirement age, not the love of nursing or humanity!

  2. Theresa White February 10, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Heather, have you thought about taking paramedic training? Or becoming a instructor for BLS, ACLS? Public health or giving flu shots during that time of year. I see ads for nurses to do that and have considered it myself but I work 8 hr. shifts 5 nights a week. Even a temp job if possible to add to a resume. I bet you have great leadership skills and organizational skills as well as nursing skills. I work in PACU at night and most of the time I do “housekeeping” when I don’t have patients. The night shift does take a toll physically and I feel I have lost my skills along with my confidence at times. I am 63yrs old, just finished my BSN (online) last yr. and have CPAN certification. I was an LPN first then got my ADN but last year that didn’t matter in selecting the nurse with the most years in nursing! It is a shame to let your valuable experience go to waste! I wish you luck! Keep searching! Nurses need to support each other!

  3. Jeffcoat January 26, 2017 at 1:02 am

    I am 65/ work as a ICU/CCU–ER– Traveling Nurse-OR–PACU–Dialysis—-I was treated so badly at [editor’s note: name of institution deleted] -by younger nurses- management as well -because of my age and that I had more experience then the Director- word to the wise for older Nurse keep a log– turn them into the EEOC- my compliant was 55 pages long- >>Log::time>dates>who was around when it happen-what was saided and by who. Most people guess my age around 55-l will never tell anyone my right age- l have to work- l am going for my BSN this year> then my Masters > Yes more education you have the better your chances are to get hired

  4. carolyn May 31, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    ADN in ’76, MSN in ’85 (Midwifery); just completed DNP. Teaching ADN students full-time and working in CNM practice (No deliveries-my choice). Don’t anticipate retirement any time in the foreseeable future. “When you stop learning, you may as well stop nursing”-unknown.

  5. Mary T Johnson May 31, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    Thanks so much for this interesting topic. I have been a nurse 40 years – BSN in 1976. I also have an MSN (1981). I just can’t seem to think about “retiring.” There are so many wonderful changes. The tremendous frustrations just don’t measure up the the wonderful feeling of caring, making a difference.

  6. Betsy Marville RN August 21, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    This is a good discussion because it exposes one of the many issues nurses need to fix: the divisions we constantly are faced with in our own profession. Old vs. young, night shift vs. day shift, hospital vs. community healthcare, BSN vs. ADN. The bottom line, we are all nurses and need to work together. Nursing was too complex for my entry straight from school into patient care 36 years ago. Today’s new grads are being thrown into a deep end that would have frightened me into another career. Educators and staff nurses in hospitals must push for nurse internships lasting at least one year. No one would expect a med student to set up a private practice or enter a specialty right out of school. Hospital nursing is specialized and competency-based for each specialty.

    Many nurses cannot retire due to the economic housing crash that scuttled their hard-built home equity and ruined their retirement savings. They are also caring for aged parents and adult children struggling economically. Healthcare being the only industry not affected by job loss, and with many jobs paying poverty wages, the RN in many families is the stabilizing income.

    New grads, are thrown into dealing with unsafe staffing situations that the experienced nurses cannot handle, non-forgiving and sometimes malfunctioning electronic records systems and medical technology designed to decrease workloads that ends up tripling them. Yes the IV pumps calculate rates, but they must be programmed correctly and no nurse relies on a machine without checking with pad and paper and calculator.

    Despite recommendations by the IOM, ANA, AACN, etc. nurses are still being disciplined and terminated for system failures that lead to errors. Nurses are not allowed to make mistakes. New RNs are thrown into inadequate computer-based orientations, and then punished when they make errors that are predictable given the work environment and the lack of mentoring. One-year RNs are becoming the mentors in a system they have barely learned.

    RNs need to take back nursing. There is plenty of need out there for new nurses. The staffing in the majority of hospitals is half what patient acuity demands. Nurse administrators, educators, managers and staff RNs need to stick together, stop pointing fingers and demand legislators pass safe staffing standards and hospitals establish safe staffing based on patient acuity. We need nurse internships to safely deliver quality patient care, while offering opportunity and experience to new nurses, while older nurses are still around to mentor them.

  7. Gigi September 13, 2014 at 8:08 am

    Well, I’m 70 and still doing Trauma Nursing because I love it. I have worked for DOD for many years (a great system) and know that they are constantly looking for nurses (clinic and hospital). I retired from there @ age 67 and couldn’t sit at home.
    This is my 1st time on this blog and I am shocked to hear that an RN can’t find a job. Be confident and let the hospitals know that you are good. A GOOD interview is a great way to get started.
    I started traveling 18 mos ago and the need for nurses is unbelievable, you just have to have a year of nursing under your belt. I average about3-4 calls a week from traveling agencies asking when I can go to work for them. Rural hospitals are crying for you to come to work for them!
    I started with a large teaching hospital as an aide 1 yr before graduation and I really encourage any new grad to work in that setting if at all possible. But, some nurses prefer a slower pace. I myself do at this point in my career because this is my “Swan Song” in nursing.
    Thank you for hearing me out. GOOD LUCK GRADS, it’s a great ride!!!

  8. jparadisirn August 27, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    @Jennifer- I feel your frustration. Job choices are slim for new grads at this time, but not non-existent. Good idea to towards your BSN. While there are no sure-fire fixes, here are a few suggestions:

    After submitting an application, make a follow up call to the Human Resources Department, inquiring about its status. I actually had one get misplaced (also during a tight job market). Because I followed up, I landed an interview, and the job. I actually said to the HR contact, “I know if the manager meets me, she’ll love me.” It worked.

    Emphasize on an application or in an interview experiences from your life which bring a unique touch to your nursing, such as your ability to speak Spanish. Have you cared for an ailing family member, which influenced your choice to go into nursing, for instance? Have you had the opportunity to witness excellence in nursing make a significant impact for a patient or family member? Bring it up.

    Join Linkedin, and indicate a specialty area of nursing. It sounds crazy, but many local opportunities pop up through this social media site.

    Be open to working on-call maybe for a couple of hospitals. I did this while transitioning into adult oncology from PICU. The trend for many units is to hire staff from on-call personnel. It allows the team to see if you’re a good fit.

    Good luck!

  9. Jennifer Reyes Valdes, RN August 25, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Every company I have applied for is looking for nurses with experience. At list here in NY we have a shortage of jobs not nurses. I have applied for hospital, rehab, home care, correctional nursing and any other position I could think of. I put any schedule or day of the week and the salary part open. It is so frustrating, but hopefully someone will give me an opportunity. I have an associates and staring my bachelors in October. I speak Spanish which helped me land an interview, but no call back so far. The interest on my loan is accumulating, but I’m just hopeful that soon someone will invest their time on training me. I think you experienced nurses would be the ideal mentor when new nurses, get a job. I don’t want to get stuck with someone who hates this beautiful profession. Some of you might be the ones doing the hiring or have a say in it. Don’t reject someone for not having experience, remember that everyone has to start from zero.

  10. Sandra Whidden Tattrie May 4, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    1962 was the beginning of my career in my chosen profession.
    I place a very high value on that “Golden Era ” and nursed on the East and West coasts and from Nova Scotia to Florida and New Orleans and places in between, in the ER, OR, RR and House Supervisor ; and more. My roles were all fulfilling and rich, I also grew within the career with my own effort. I am loaded with memories of people and events, and feel blessed! I’m happy to see that so many are ” keeping – on ” Bless you all !!!

  11. Barb Allerton April 18, 2013 at 1:49 pm

    I have really enjoyed this discussion. I have taught nursing for 38 years (and worked part-time in clinical nursing for 25 years of that time). Nursing workforce needs have ebbed and flowed over those years. No one is guaranteed a job, and the market is tight now. I counsel students about to graduate all the time about that search for their first job. 1–be flexible. A part time job may open doors to full time. There are jobs in rural settings and long term care. 2–your first job is just that, not your lifetime career. Get that first job, get experience and many more doors open up for you. 3–be willing to relocate. In our generation (“boomers”), moving across country for a job was not unusual. 4–while I hear the frustration and anger in Heather’s posting, you can’t let that seep into your job search. Many of us nurse educators try to provide students with a realistic view of the job market, many don’t really want to hear it, only to feel frustrated when the job search gets difficult. You have to keep looking, be willing to take a risk, and pursue all avenues–career centers, the VA, looking around the country. The jobs are out there.
    By the way–I am retiring–well, to part time teaching, that is. I wish all our new grads the best of luck.

  12. judi np April 15, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    i still believe after 47 years of being an r.n. now a n.p, that nursing is an art, a science, and most of all a calling if you are looking to make a very large salary this is not the business for most but if you want to work in an environment that is fullfilling be a nurse

  13. Elaine Aubin April 15, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Heather…if you have a military background, I suggest you look at working at a VA Medical Center. They do their best to hire Veterans! Good luck!

  14. jeanne April 15, 2013 at 10:01 am

    To heather.I graduated in 1972.It was the same.We never hoped for a day shift position.We had long hours and at that time doctors were not policed as they are now.Some would scream at us and even hurl charts across the desk at the nurse for something another shift had done.I considered quiting and we all threatened to be a cashier.Like that is an easy job.LOL.I did some soulsearching and knew this was a pashion.No turning back.Battle the beast.

  15. Teresa Goodell, RN, PhD March 28, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Re: new grads – until recently, I taught undergrad nursing at a university. Students found that while opportunities for new grads are very limited in urban areas and hospitals, especially high-demand units ICUs. there are openings in other settings, such as rural locations and long-term care. I advised students to think broadly about where they might seek employment, be willing to move or commute, and never give up.

    Re: older nurses – I just left an ICU position because the pace and the nature of the work were simply untenable. 12.5 hour shifts, missed breaks, many new staff that need extra education and mentoring, and – worst of all – broken systems that hamper nurses’ ability to provide care all drove me away. If there were opportunities for shorter shifts, special projects that use my advanced skills, and efforts to fix unwieldy systems that hinder safe practice, I would still be there.

  16. Cathy Sweeney RN March 27, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    There is so much anger in you and I can understand some of it, but if you went into nursing just to always have a job which I do not think you meant you chose the wrong profession. Have you gone to an employment agency? They may be able to help you get a job with your current experience. Are you willing to take any job that comes up to gain some experience so you can move to the area you would like to work in. Would you consider a change o location to get some experience? As I said earlier I am not yet at retirement age but what I left out is that I may have to retire because I have some medical issues that make it impossible to provide patient care and may cause a problem even to go into teaching which is what I am now working toward. I am sure there are other nurses like me who will make room for the newer nurses coming up. My concern is that there will not be nurses who can care for me not just as a job but as a nurse. I hope you find a job out there and carry Florence Nightingale in your practice.

  17. JParadisiRN March 27, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    Thank you Heather, for your brave, heart felt comment. I was hoping someone such as yourself would speak up and express what I realize is the reality for new nurses. Yesterday, a colleague complained of not being able to move beyond their current role, because of older nurses holding their places at the table.
    I agree, you’ve been sold a bill of goods, which has not manifested for many of you. And that school debt looms.

    Blogging is about conversation, and sharing opinions. I’m sorry my comment came across as sarcastic; that was not my intent. The Internet is a bit tone deaf sometimes.

    Does anyone have helpful suggestions for new nurses looking for work?

    Are there resources for nursing students in need of school debt relief?

    How are nursing schools preparing students for this change in the forecast of the nursing shortage?

  18. Heather March 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    I will tell you how it is for us new grads. While yippee for all of you older generation nurses, some of us are really struggling to make ends meet. If we didn’t know someone or had our foot in the door somewhere before hand, we are getting screwed now. Those loans are being defaulted on and we are working at the checkout lines at Walmart, if we can even find work at all, instead of living our dreams. My mother is a 65 year old nurse who refuses to retire. But she is one who does not love her job. She just decide to squander her retirement and reenter the nurse force to pay her bills. And all those years I had to listen to her tell me the same thing… long as there are sick people, you will always have a job. Well I am living testament to the fact that, no I won’t. And I really wish schools would stop pushing that same load of crap just so they can continue to get paid. I spent almost 11 years in the army as a medic and a surgical assistant. Went to an Army post recently to apply for a nursing position figuring I would be a shoe in. Was told minimum of one year experience, no exceptions. Wow! After all the years I invested in training other how to do their in hospital jobs. Everyone from the doctors down to the secretaries, and NOTHING. All of a sudden no body wants to invest any time to train me. I have been told that I should volunteer to get some of said ‘experience’. Ironic, since I can promise that in that one year I would never even come close to my first year in the Army where I did EVERYONE’s job, which now counts for absolutely nothing! Oh, and not to mention that volunteering doesn’t exactly put food on the table or pay the bills, specifically those school loans we racked up. So I feel that I have exhausted all avenues, submitted all applications possible, and still I don’t hold out much hope for anything in this field anymore. Any suggestions from anyone out there? I am at my wit’s end! Just to mention, I don’t have a bad attitude when I show up to turn in resumes. This is simply my frustration, since the second poster on here was already questioning what it was like, in a purposely sarcastic tone. NOT COOL! Prime example of nurses “eating their own”. And it would do you well to remember, JParadisiRN, the generation that YOU will have to rely on to take care of YOU when YOU are no longer able. Guess too many of us newer nurses won’t be there or that. Too bad because you will be missing out on some excellent care from this nurse!

  19. Cathy Sweeney RN March 26, 2013 at 11:41 am

    As an older nurse that has not quite reached retirement and does not plan a complete retirement anytime soon, I am almost finished with my MSN Ed. Yes I did it on line as well as my BSN. My plan is to teach in a school of nursing or teach end-of life care to nurses already working perhaps in a hospital or hospital system but not working 5 days per week. I love nursing it is what I am and end-of-life care is my passion. I have much knowledge and would like to share it with others.

  20. Peggy March 25, 2013 at 11:43 pm

    I love, love, LOVE this post! Yippee for us “old” nurses. My dad always told me to do something for a career that I loved, and that helped me pay the rent. Nursing has suited me to a “t” for all these years and if I get bored, I’ve reinvented myself. Easily done in this career. Thanks JP!

  21. Marcy Phipps March 25, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    This reminds me of how lucky I am to be a nurse – to love what I do and have almost endless possibilities for growth. Great post!

  22. JParadisiRN March 25, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    I enjoy seeing the accomplishments of my older colleagues, and am grateful for their ground breaking careers.

    I’m wondering how new grads are coping while competing for jobs with this older group of nurses?

    How are new grads managing student loans, and debt while looking for work?

    Are you disillusioned, waiting for the nursing shortage?

  23. nelgail March 25, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    I am 74 years old,and still Nursing. I will stay at the home for some one that needs someone for a few days,or a week past Surg.or otherthings.
    I just don’t want to give up Nursing,I love it. I have been Camp Nurse at a Youth Camp for 27 years,and will be going back this summer,

  24. nelgail March 25, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    I am 74 years old,and still Nursing. When some one has Surg,or just need someone with them for a a day,or a week , I will do that.I just don’t want to give up nursing.
    I have been Camp Nurse for 27 summer at youth camp,going back this summer

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