Older registered nurses are working longer than in the past, one reason that the nation’s supply of RNs has grown substantially in recent years, according to a new study.

Researchers found that from 1991 to 2012, among registered nurses working at age 50, 24 percent remained working as late as age 69. This compared to 9 percent during the period from 1969 to 1990. The findings are published online by the journal Health Affairs.

“We estimate this trend accounts for about a quarter of an unexpected surge in the supply of registered nurses that the nation has experienced in recent years,” said David Auerbach, the study’s lead author and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “This may provide advantages to parts of the U.S. health care system.”

Researchers say the registered nurse workforce has surpassed forecasts from a decade ago, growing to 2.7 million in 2012 instead of peaking at 2.2 million as forecast. While much of the difference is the result of a surge in new nursing graduates, the size of the workforce is particularly sensitive to changes in retirement age, given the large number of baby boomer RNs now in the workforce.

Auerbach and colleagues found that in the period 1969 to 1990, for a given number of RNs working at age 50, 47 percent were still working at age 62. In contrast, in the period 1991–2012, 74 percent were working at age 62.

The trend of RNs delaying retirement, which largely predates the recent recession, extended nursing careers by 2.5 years after age 50 and increased the 2012 RN workforce by 136,000 people, according to the study.

This finding is consistent with the authors’ previous work conducted (see Proportion of Registered Nurses Employed in Hospitals Falls Below 60% in 2013) showing that the proportion of nurses working in hospitals has hit an all-time low since we have been tracking this data.  As emphasis on care management and coordination grows, health care organizations may welcome a large number of experienced RNs seeking to shift from hospital to non-hospital settings.  This includes health care delivery systems such as accountable care organizations that — prodded by the federal Affordable Care Act – may be seeking to reduce hospital-based care.

Researchers say the reasons that older RNs are working longer is unclear, but it is likely part of an overall trend that have seen more Americans, women in particular, stay in the workforce longer because of lengthening life expectancy and the satisfaction they derive from employment.

Support for the study was provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Other authors of the report are Peter I. Buerhaus of Vanderbilt University and Douglas O. Staiger of Dartmouth College.

RAND Health is the nation’s largest independent health policy research program, with a broad research portfolio that focuses on health care costs, quality and public health preparedness, among other topics.

Source: Robak, W. RAND Corporation (2014). Registered nurses delaying retirement helps to boost nursing supply in the U.S., study finds [Press release].

The complete article and findings are available here.