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We Stood on Their Shoulders
A Generation of Nurses Retires

Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.

George Bernard Shaw

The graying of the American nursing workforce seems statistically inevitable, and this reality has already started to affect the workforce in numerous ways. It is estimated that within three years the four generations of nurses (Seniors, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y) will be reduced to three generations. The Senior generation of nurses that make up approximately 7% of the nursing workforce are slowly walking out of hospitals and long term care settings into full retirement, consulting, or part time work. As the race for the retirement of the next generation of nurses (Baby Boomers) intensifies, we must not let that over shadow the importance of paying tribute to the generation of nurses (the Seniors) now retiring and the need for the remaining three generations to tap into their wisdom and experience. For many years after the Baby Boomers joined the nursing workforce in the mid sixties they stood on the shoulders of the Seniors who led the way. The Baby Boomers will step down from the Senior nurse shoulders and inherit the generational crown, baton and the title of the senior working generation.

Part of the Baby Boomer success to this point and their ability to take on this new role can be attributed to the example of the Senior nurses through their vision, values and work ethic. The Senior nurse generation were born between the years 1922-1943 and over the years have acquired different labels of the Silents, Traditionalists, Loyalists, Matures and Veterans. Tom Brokaw wrote in his book, The Greatest Generation,1 that he was in awe of them, citing their astonishing number of accomplishments. The childhood world of our most senior nurses was dramatically different than the one we live in today. News came largely from newspapers and radio; long-distance phone calls were rare and expensive occurrences; shopping was mostly done at locally owned stores; and movies were only seen in the theater. As children, members of this generation were expected to be “seen and not heard.” They were taught that their parents, teachers and other authority figures were to be obeyed (Weston, 2006).2 Like all generations they were catalyzed around the defining events of their time which were the: Stock market crash (1929); the Star Spangled Banner became the national anthem; the social security system was established; Hitler invaded Austria; Pearl Harbor, D-Day in Normandy and the Korean War (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2000).3 The compelling messages that evolved from these defining events in their homes, communities, and organizations were: Make do or do without, stay in line, sacrifice, be heroic, and consider the common good. In light of the defining moments of our current era, these are compelling messages that we can all listen and adhere to if we are seeking to rise above and thrive in todayís world. Spending time in quiet conversation with a Senior nurse and seeking their wisdom would be a wise thing for all of us to do.

The Senior nurse mindset has dominated the nursing culture in such a way that every other generationís set of beliefs, values and work ethics have been weighed against theirs. Whether standing on their shoulders or working shoulder to shoulder with Senior nurses, it didnít take long for the Baby Boomer nurses to understand that they were solid, steadfast, and no-nonsense performers. Leading by example and building on the promise of providing the best possible care, the Senior nurses taught the next three generations how to be dedicated, respectful, patient, and hard working all the while adhering to the rules. They did not lead with rousing speeches or talk about lofty ideals for a promising future in nursing; they simply modeled the behavior and expected the other generations to follow in their footsteps. While some did follow and some rebelled along the way, many learned how to listen to their conscience, build their integrity, become more independent and find a way to figure out how to be happy in their nursing careers.

If values are considered central to the nursing culture, they must be transmitted from one generation to another. How do we keep the values of the Seniors alive in our culture after they leave when culture is not widely discussed between individuals, on our teams, or in our organizations? It happens when we keep remembering that we did not get here on our own. We stood on their shoulders while they often carried us through difficult times, nurturing us through the fear of failure, teaching us to be strong, to learn from our mistakes and to do the right thing. They gave the Baby Boomers, Generation X and Y the compelling messages: Be anything you want to be. Change the world. Work well with others.

A Baby Boomer Speaking From the Heart

There are so many reasons for being grateful to the Senior nurse generation. Most importantly they taught us how to deliver excellence in customer care, to advocate for ourselves and our goals and to take leadership on the issues that mattered most to us. They never forgot where they came from, how they got there, who they were and always looked back to lend a helping hand to the generations that followed. They hoisted us up onto their shoulders when we were tired, discouraged and had sometimes lost our way. When we thought the going was too rough, they gently urged us to pick ourselves up by our boots straps and keep on going.

I am reminded of a French proverb that says, “Gratitude is the heartís memory.” The senior nurse generation has touched the hearts and minds of nurses and patients for over sixty years creating memories and helping others transform their dreams into reality. Let us pause for a moment and give thanks to a generation of nurses who are leaving us all a rich heritage and a real understanding of the essence of nursing.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.4

Melody Beatti


  1. 1Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998), p.37.
  2. 2Weston, M., (2006). “Integrating Generational Perspectives in Nursing”. OJIN: the online Journal of Issues in Nursing. Vol. 11 No.2, Manuscript 1 Available: www.nursingworld.org
  3. 3Zemke, R., Raines, C. & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at work: New York: Amacon
  4. 4Beattie, Melody. The Language of Letting Go. New York: Hazelden/Harper & Row, 1990.

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