Nurse Retirements: What's Happening & What to Expect


What RNs do after retirement

By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

Registered nurse retirements are leaving healthcare organizations with nurse shortages as COVID-19 cases rise, but those retirements are not necessarily due to the coronavirus pandemic.  

“There’s no good evidence but I am hearing about some early retirements,” said Peter Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at the College of Nursing at Montana State University in Bozeman. “It’s difficult to pin it down with any numbers.”

The Future of Nursing 2020-2030 report from the National Academy of Medicine indicates that the pandemic may accelerate or slow nurse retirements.

Peter Corless, MBA, executive vice president of enterprise development for OnShift in Cleveland, Ohio, reported that “many providers have told me that they experienced an increase in retirements over the past year—some a reaction to the virus and health concerns, some burnout, and some the demographic aging of the workforce. It’s anticipated that this will continue for all three reasons.”

Baby boomer nurse retirements

The Future of Nursing 2020-2030 reports more than 1 million registered nurses will retire this decade. The average age of nurses now is 44 years, lower than a few years ago due to the retirements of the baby boomer nursing generation.   

The 1.2 million baby boomer nurses began retiring in 2010, with a gradual start, Buerhaus said. He estimates between 2013 and 2017 about 60,000 baby boomer RNs retired annually, which likely went up to 70,000 after the COVID-19 pandemic started. 

“We were seeing a withdrawal from the workforce over the past decade,” Buerhaus said. “The retirement of so many seasoned, experienced nurses, both clinically and organizationally, meant from 2015 to 2017, a good number of hospitals were reporting shortages of nurses. They could not replace these more experienced nurses with new graduates. It was not a one-for-one replacement.”   

More than two million years of nursing experience has left the workforce with these retiring nurses this decade, he said. These are nurses with organizational knowledge about how to get things done in a hospital and ones who had established trusting relationships with physicians. 

Some of these nurses were working in acute-care settings, but many nurses over the age of 50 work in home health, nursing homes, schools, government agencies, call centers and other settings, according to the Future of Nursing 2020-2030 report. 

Retirement planning for nurses

Pre-COVID-19, most nurses had planned their retirement, many consulting with a financial advisor, Buerhaus said. However, he added, “COVID may have added some emotion to it, where they wake up one day and say, ‘This is it.’”  

While that may be, Fidelity released the “2021 State of Retirement Planning Study,” which found the pandemic has negatively affected the retirement plans of 82 percent of Americans. Forty-five percent are determined or hope they can get back on track. That optimism, the report states, may result from the pandemic, which caused 79 percent of people to re-evaluate their priorities. 

The Northwestern Mutual “Planning & Progress Study 2021” found 17 percent of U.S. adults did not have a financial plan prior to the pandemic but now have a plan, and 83 percent created or adjusted their financial plan. 

Finances are only part of a successful retirement. As nurses and others retire, they also must have plans about how they will spend their time.  

After nurses retire

No data exists about what nurses do after retirement, but anecdotally, nurses may do many healthcare-related activities after leaving full-time careers.

Some nurses will volunteer at free clinics. Some may sign up to respond to disasters, according to the latest Future of Nursing report.

Many nurses, Buerhaus said, have opted to stay on their units and help with the COVID-19 onslaught of patients. Others volunteered to return to the workforce to help with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Retiring nurses may opt to try travel nursing so they can see the country on short-term assignments, avoiding hospital politics and doing what they went to school for initially – taking care of patients.  

Another option for nurses might include becoming a professional patient advocate as a contractor or working for an advocacy company. Teri Dreher, RN, opened NShore Patient Advocates in Chicago. She also teaches other nurses how to become advocates.  

“We love helping patients but are exhausted with the system,” says Dreher. “Patient advocacy allows nurses and other healthcare professionals to do the things they love without the downside, while finally getting paid what they’re really worth.” 

Most nurses consider themselves nurses for life. They identify with their profession, and while retirement offers an opportunity to pursue other rewards, many continue to seek out patients to care for. 


Retiring from full-time nursing, or simply looking for a change of pace? has thousands of travel nursing opportunities across the country.

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