A generation gap in career expectations

Health Education West Midlands’ project Every Student Counts has investigated the impact of different generations’ career expectations. Understanding this connection can help to define the support needs of nursing and midwifery students as well as newly qualified nurses.

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When Kerry Jones suggested that more support might be needed for student and newly qualified nurses and midwives, the reaction included a good dose of incredulity. ‘The response was: “Just what level of support does this group need? Because we feel we’re doing quite a lot.”’

She was presenting the early findings of a year-long project entitled Every Student Counts. Initiated by Health Education West Midlands as a result of concerns about the retention of staff moving into early career posts, the programme canvassed students and new staff on what would make them stay in the profession.

According to Dr Jones, who was the programme’s director and is head of clinical workforce design at Birmingham Children’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, some themes were quick to emerge. Among them, that students and new staff wanted to feel valued and appreciated in their teams, to have regular feedback and to receive support from leaders.

Dr Jones and project managers Alison Warren and Alison Davies were left looking for ways to characterise the comments. ‘I thought if this work is going to be of use, we must find something universal around the needs of this group.’

It is time the phrase ‘not like that in my day’ was finally banished

That search led to generational typologies – the idea that your expectations vary depending on when you were born. ‘That was the light-bulb moment,’ says Dr Jones.

The vast majority of current senior students and newly qualified nurses are from Generation Y: those born between 1980 and 1994. When mapping the perceived traits of this generation against the themes the Every Student Counts project had uncovered, Dr Jones found they were the same. One of those characteristics is a willingness to leave a job or profession that does not meet expectations.

As the recent Shape of Caring review identified, attrition rates for university nursing programmes are high. So too are the numbers leaving nursing soon after qualifying. Could it be that high turnover is representative of a profession not attuned to the needs of a new generation?

Generation Ys tend to be ambitious, expecting to progress quickly. Mapping out potential career paths can be a way of meeting this need.

Generation Y nurse Nat Williams says nursing is something she always wanted to do. But six months into life as a qualified nurse she is less sure. ‘I have questioned whether this is something I want to do, just because I am coming into an established team,’ she explains. ‘People know each other; they have their own cliques.’

It is an experience that seems to speak to one of the key Generation Y expectations: to feel valued as part of a team. Certainly Ms Williams – born in the early 1980s – feels colleagues from other generations have not always understood her needs.

‘On one placement, one of my mentors said: “When I was a student this is how it was done and this is what I expect you to do.” I thought: “Well, I’m not here to make beds, I am here to do the medication round with you.” So there was a gap somewhere where they weren’t understanding that needs have changed for nursing students.’

Carol Doyle, head of school for nursing, midwifery and social work professions at Birmingham City University, is searching for ways to close that gap. She says it is a case of ‘trying to meet students half way in terms of what they want and what we can deliver’. That has meant, for example, reworking the university’s personal tutor system to support the Generation Y need for regular feedback.

Dayna Wright is three years into her midwifery course at Birmingham City University. ‘In education with A-levels and then university, we have received good feedback and ways to improve,’ she says. ‘But it’s more about placement. We all have assessed placements that we receive feedback from at the end, but we don’t necessarily get support and feedback throughout to try to change and better ourselves.’

It has also been necessary to explain what mentors will and will not be able to do. ‘Sometimes the students have unrealistic expectations of the amount of support they will get in practice,’ admits Ms Doyle. ‘They cannot have someone with them all the time.’

Value of diversity

There is a danger many of those in Generation X – born between 1965 and 1979 and defined as independent, pragmatic and self-reliant – will scoff at this degree of need, as will the baby boomers that preceded them. But according to Health Education England’s director of nursing Lisa Bayliss-Pratt, it is time the phrase ‘not like that in my day’ was finally banished.

‘We don’t want to alienate the baby boomers and Generation X. We need to cherish that workforce,’ says Professor Bayliss-Pratt, who adds that diversity of generations should be valued. ‘We need to work through how to get a complementary relationship between someone who has those values and the experiences of Generations Y and Z.’

My generation

Baby boomers: post-war babies (born 1946-1964)

Motivated, hard-working and team-orientated with high expectations, many baby boomers have put work first at the expense of home lives.

Generation X: the latchkey kids (born 1965-1979)

Self-reliant, practical and independent, Generation Xs tend to resist micro-management and believe in working smarter rather than harder.

Generation Y: the millennials (born 1980-1994)

Ambitious with high career expectations, Generation Ys have been through an education system that nurtured and encouraged. They demand a good work-life balance.

Generation Z: the digital natives (born 1995 to 2010)

Still emerging, but Generation Zs’ needs are likely to be rooted in their status as digital natives.

For Dr Jones, that is an opportunity. ‘Rather than seeing this as a problem to be solved, I’ve flipped it on its head because there’s a lot we could learn from the younger generation in terms of the balance they try to achieve between life and work’.

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