Post-Pandemic Recovery in the U.S. Registered Nurse Workforce

Projected growth returns to pre-pandemic predictions: Millennial RNs will play key role

February 16, 2024

WALTHAM, MASSACHUSETTS-A study released today in the online journal JAMA Health Forum reports on recent trends in RN employment through 2023 and forecasts the growth of the RN workforce through 2035.  The nursing workforce has experienced great volatility in the pandemic, losing 100,000 registered nurses and raising concerns about future shortages.

The authors analyzed data on employed RNs ages 23-69 years old from the US Bureau of the Census Current Population Survey from 1982 through 2023. The study reports recent trends in employment of RNs by age, demographics, and sector of employment and forecasts the growth of the RN workforce by age through 2035.

The study findings include:

  • After a substantial drop during the pandemic, the nursing workforce recovered in 2022 and 2023, and the future size is now expected to increase from a current 3.35 million (2023) to an estimated 4.56 million in 2035.
  • The RN workforce grew 6.1% from 2018-2019 to 2022-2023. Higher than average growth occurred among RNs younger than 35 years (8.2% growth), male RNs (14.1%), unmarried RNs (7.4%), Advanced Practice RNs (18.2%), and RNs working outside of hospital settings (12.8%).
  • Future growth in the RN workforce from 2023 to 2035 will be driven primarily by RNs aged 35 to 49 years, who are projected to compose nearly half (47%) of the RN workforce in 2035, up from 38% in 2022.
  • RN employment shifted away from hospitals during the pandemic: the percentage of RNs employed in hospitals dropped from 60.3% before the pandemic to 57.8% after the pandemic as the number of hospital RNs grew only 1.6%. This shift was entirely due to a drop in hospital employment among RNs older than 40 years. While this shift was happening before the pandemic; it has accelerated.

The study was co-authored by David Auerbach, PhD, Visiting Scholar, and Karen Donelan, ScD, the Stuart H. Altman Chair in U.S. Health Policy at Brandeis University; Peter Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, emeritus professor at Montana State University; and Douglas Staiger, PhD, the John Sloan Dickey Third Century Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College.

The report is available at the JAMA Health Forum website.