What are the work values of Generation Z nurses?

Standing outside the medical clinic, the young adult female nurse poses for a photo. She is wearing a protective mask because of COVID-19.

Understanding work values may be helpful in developing and informing strategies to effectively attract and retain this emerging workforce in nursing.

A shortage in the nursing workforce is not a new topic. With the substantial impact of COVID-19 on nurses and the ageing of the nursing workforces, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) estimates the global nursing shortfall could reach 13 million in the aftermath of COVID-19.1 Previous research has extensively examined nurse attraction and retention strategies through different approaches such as undergraduate education, transition to practice programs, leadership styles, and nursing practice models.2 While this research sheds light on a number of issues, some questions remain regarding why some of these strategies are more effective than others and how do we devise a strategy that really fits nurses’ needs and expectations? The concept of “work value” may be the key to answering these questions.

Work values can be defined as the values that individuals consider important for their work (eg. salary, working conditions, and autonomy).3 In other words, work values are the expectations and rewards people feel they should attain through their job. When individuals’ work values are satisfied, they report higher levels of job satisfaction, are less likely to leave their job, and develop better job commitment.4 Hence, work values often serve as criteria for assessing jobs and work environments that guide employees’ work-related decisions and motivate their actions, such as whether to apply for or quit a job, or even accept one job over another.5

In recent decades, researchers have sought to identify a constellation of work values that represent the full range of peoples’ needs that are met through working. Despite the many different labels, classifications, and typologies, seven main types of work values are often identified (Table 1): extrinsic (instrumental), intrinsic (cognitive), social, altruistic, leisure, autonomy, and prestige (status).6,7

Based on this understanding of the broad domains of work-values, let’s now dig deeper on how work values differ from person to person, and how certain groups of people may show preference to certain work values. First, previous research has suggested that due to different innate tendency and past experience, individuals will “prioritise” their work values differently, leading to a variety of orientations and preferences towards work.8 That is to say, we may all hold similar work values in general (A,B,C,D); however, it is the different priority or order in which we place these values (C,B,A,D versus B,D,A,C) that prompts us to make different career decisions. To examine the function and influence of work values in more detail, recent studies have targeted workers in specific occupations and generations, among which few studies have found some work values seem to be favored by certain generational cohorts.7 This generational difference in work values can be explained by the Generational Theory that each generational cohort grow up with similar upbringings and experiences (ie. media, historical and social events, popular culture), and hence, form common value systems and attributes that distinguish them from people who grew up at different times.9

Currently the nursing workforce comprises four different generational cohorts: Baby-Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964), Generation-X (born from 1965 to 1979), Generation-Y (born from 1980 to 1994) and Generation-Z (born from 1995 to 2012).10 To demonstrate this difference in values, Baby-Boom nurses who are now nearing retirement have been found to often value title, recognition, and money, and are described as idealistic, hard-working, with greater organisational loyalty. Thus, effective management strategies for Baby-Boom nurses might include giving recognition to their contribution and providing them with opportunities to share their expertise.10 Conversely, Generation-X nurses who are now moving into more senior and managerial positions more predominantly value freedom and work-life balance. Hence, ideal management strategies to attract and retain these experienced Generation-X nurses can include an allowance to work independently and a flexible work schedule.10 Further, Generation-Y nurses who now represent the largest workforce are drawn to meaningful work with great learning opportunities. Managers therefore can seek to recognise Generation-Y nurses’ personal goals and strive to create a positive environment that sparks their enthusiasm.10

Some caution however is required. Although the generational theory provides useful “general clues” about work values of different generations, individuals within generational cohorts do not of course all hold the same values as has been described above, and so there is of course individual diversity that employers should be sensitive to. Employers should also avoid making assumptions about individuals based on stereotypical characteristics about their generational age bracket.

While we have some understanding of the work values of previous generations, Generation-Z nurses have only recently started entering the workplace; hence, evidence regarding their work values and preferences is still scarce and sometimes inconsistent.

A US study of 525 Generation-Z nursing students concluded the most important work values are helping people, having an interesting and engaging job, and having good job security and benefits.11

Another expert opinion article suggested that Generation-Z nurses prefer a stable career and may be more loyal than their Generation-Y counterparts. Moreover, they favour a job with prompt feedbacks where their ideas and perspectives are listened, and hence a preceptorship system may be helpful.12 To provide a comprehensive view of existing literature, researchers at the Rosemary Bryant AO Research Centre are undertaking a Scoping Review and conceptually mapping and categorising current evidence regarding work values of Generation-Z nurses. This review may shed light on future recruiting and retention strategies that align with the work values of the growing workforce.

To conclude, all generations bring valuable perspectives and contributions to the workforce, however with a need for more nurses, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic and with an ageing population, it is now important more than ever to consider how to best attract and retain those in younger generations as those who are older retire, to ensure a healthy, supported and sustainable workforce.

  1. International Council of Nurses (ICN). ICN policy brief – the global nursing shortage and nurse retention [Internet]. Geneva (Switzerland): ICN; 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 10]. Available from: https://www.icn.ch/publications.
  2. Halter M, Pelone F, Boiko O, Beighton C, Harris R, Gale J, et al. Interventions to reduce adult nursing turnover: a systematic review of systematic reviews. Open Nurs J. 2017; 11:108-23.
  3. Saito Y, Igarashi A, Noguchi-Watanabe M, Takai Y, Yamamoto-Mitani N. Work values and their association with burnout/work engagement among nurses in long-term care hospitals. J Nurs Manag. 2018; 26(4):393-402.
  4. Andela M, van der Doef M. A comprehensive assessment of the person–environment fit dimensions and their relationships with work-related outcomes. J Career Dev. 2019; 46(5):567-82.
  5. Hara Y, Asakura K. Concept analysis of nurses’ work values. Nurs Forum. 2021; 56(4):1029-37.
  6. Maloni M, Hiatt MS, Campbell S. Understanding the work values of Gen Z business students. Int J Manag Educ. 2019; 17(3):100320.
  7. Twenge JM, Campbell SM, Hoffman BJ, Lance CE. Generational differences in work values: leisure and extrinsic values increasing, social and intrinsic values decreasing. J Manage. 2010; 36(5):1117-42.
  8. Ng ES, Lyons ST, Schweitzer L. Generational career shifts : how matures, boomers, gen Xers, and millennials view work [Internet]. Bingley (England): Emerald Publishing Limited; 2018 [cited 2021 Dec 10]. Available from: https://books.emeraldinsight.com/resources/pdfs/chapters/9781787544147-TYPE23-NR2.pdf.
  9. Strauss W, Howe N. Generations: the history of America’s future, 1584 to 2069. New York: Quill; 1991.
  10. Christensen SS, Wilson BL, Edelman LS. Can I relate? A review and guide for nurse managers in leading generations. J Nurs Manag. 2018; 26(6):689-95.
  11. Hampton D, Welsh D. Work Values of Generation Z Nurses. J Nurs Adm. 2019; 49(10):480-6.
  12. Chicca J, Shellenbarger T. Connecting with Generation Z: approaches in nursing education. Teach Learn Nurs. 2018; 13(3):180-4.

Yi Sun is a registered nurse at St Andrew’s Hospital and an inaugural Rosemary Bryant AO Research Centre Summer Research Scholar

Casey Marnie and Micah DJ Peters PhD work at the National Policy Research Unit (Federal Office), Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) and the University of South Australia, Clinical and Health Sciences, Rosemary Bryant AO Research Centre

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