Nursing 50 Years Back and Today: How the Nursing Field has changed over the last 50 Years

50 years is a long time in any life. In the life of the average nurse, the past 50 years has seen many changes in nurses in general and the profession as a whole. Gone are the days when nurses were thought of as little more than helpers or assistants for doctors. Today’s nurses are health care professionals in their own right. They are bright, capable, and often have a clearer picture of the overall situation than the doctors they work side by side with.

Outside the field of nursing the world has seen major changes over the past 50 years. Those changes, in many cases, are nothing when compared to the changes that the field of nursing has experienced in the same period of time.

What are some of these big changes the nursing field has seen in the last 50 years?

Nursing Uniforms in History

In the 1960’s nurses still wore dresses and stocking as their uniforms. It was during this decade that things began to be a little more “buttoned down” and less formal for nurses. The uniforms also take a turn in the direction of more fashionable than in the past. Some of the more modern touches include belts and feminine cuffs. Don’t forget the pillbox hat that was an essential part of the nurse’s uniform.

In the 1970’s more changes came to the way nurses dressed. Dresses were a little shorter. The caps were beginning to lose importance in some hospitals across the country.

The 1980’s saw the end of the nursing caps altogether. Most nurses will agree there were few tears shed over the loss. Nurses also began wearing disposable aprons at this point rather than cloth aprons and medical facilities became much less militant in regards to restrictions on jewelry and cosmetics.

During the 1990’s and today, nursing dresses have been replaced with much more user friendly scrub suits. Scrub suits can be found in a wide variety of colors and styles. Some hospitals have specific scrub suit colors for different types of hospital staff and others allow nurses and other staff to choose colors and styles that appeal to them. Today’s nursing uniforms are designed more for function than form but are also considered much more comfortable than those worn throughout history.

Salaries of Nurses over the Past 50 Years

Over the past 50 years nursing has experienced many changes when it comes to salaries. During this time there have been times when the supply of nurses outstrips demand by far and others when the demand for nurses is not able to keep up with the growing need. Recent years have seen a much greater demand than there is supply. This has made salaries over the past two decades grow at a surprising rate.

The good news for nurses entering the field today is that demand in the next decades is only projected to grow. Today’s nurses, RNs specifically, can make as much as $72,000 a year. Many registered nurses (RNs) in today’s market start out making as much as $40,000. Of course this largely dependent on where nurses live, the type of nursing positions that are being taken, and the demand for nurses in that area.

While this is definitely a respectable salary by today’s standards it’s something nurses in 1966, when a general duty nursed earned the whopping sum o $5,200 for a year’s worth of service could hardly have imagined.  Many nurses today bring home in a month what the nurses of the 1960’s and 1970’s earned in a full year of service. This salary change for nurses from an average salary of $2,100 in 1946 is the direct result of a nursing shortage that was deemed critical at the time.

Job Demand for Nurses over the Past 50 Years

There have been ebbs and flows in the demand for nurses over the past 50 years. During the 1960s there was an increased measure of demand for nurses as the result of several acts including The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the Child and Health and Medical Assistance Act of 1965, and the Public Assistance Act of 1965. It was also during this time that the Surgeon General made the announcement that a minimum of 40,000 new nurses must graduate each year in order to meet the growing needs of society’s overall health care.

Today the nursing shortage is even more critical than even in the 1960s. With new legislation looming and much uncertainty ahead in the future for those in the medical field it’s difficult to envision what the future holds for nurses, salaries, supply, and demand. It is projected that by 2025 there will be a shortage of 260,000 nurses in the U.S.

The Roles of Nurses in Health Care

Not only has demand for nurses changed over time but so has the role that nurses play in the overall medical health picture. Nurses have always been important to patient care. Today’s roles are taking on more technologically challenging roles than at any other point in history. Some nurses are taking over roles that were once reserved for physicians (nurse midwives, for example).

Nurses are beginning to become more and more specialized than in days past. Today there are specialties like OR (operating room) nurses, Geriatric nurses, medical-surgical nurses, labor and delivery nurses, pediatric nurses, ICU Nurses, and even psychiatric nurses. Education, continuing education, and clinical experience go a long way today to ensure that nurses are on top of their games from the moment they graduate nursing school until they retire from nursing. The workplace today is as much a part of ongoing education in the respective fields for nurses as colleges and other educational institutions.

This hasn’t always been the case. In recent years the nurses role has become less that of a caretaker for patients and more that of an advocate for patients. The nurse assesses the condition of patients, measures the ability of a patient to make informed decisions from him or herself or to provide informed consent for procedures. Today’s nurse is a respected part of a team that is dedicated to delivering excellent patient care.

In addition to the various types of nursing fields to pursue there are different nursing positions that can be obtained by further education as a nurse.

  • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
  • Associate’s Degree Registered Nurse (ADRN or ADN)
  • Bachelor of Science Degree Registered Nurse (BSRN or BSN)
  • Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN)
  • Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA)
  • Nurse Practitioners (NP)
  • Nurse Midwives (CNM)

The Role of Men and Women in Nursing

Nursing continues to be the one field in which women are able to approach the glass salary ceiling that separates them from men. In many careers men outpace women in earning. In this field, men and women, consistently earn the same amount of money. Nurses can earn a comfortable salary today and additional education and training can increase that salary.

With many hospitals offering tuition assistance or reimbursement for continuing education it makes sense for nurses interested in earning more or learning more to do so. Women in nursing face no glass ceiling and few limitations on where their education can take them.

They’ve come a long way when it comes to nursing but not quite so long as men in this field. There was a time when men were simply not nurses. Those days have long gone and though women still outnumber men in nursing there are many male nurses who earn great salaries and excel in the field.

The old stereotypes do not seem to apply when it comes to nursing as a career choice. Men and women are equally capable of handling the physical, mental, and emotional demands that a career in nursing presents.

Technology in Nursing

Technology today has made the job of nurses much easier than in the past. In many ways it frees up more time for nurses to devote to direct patient care. Technology allows nurses to measure vital signs quickly, record information efficiently, and to administer medications.

Modern marvels have not yet managed to replace the need for nurses to perform diagnostics that will not likely ever be managed by computer or machine. The imprint of new medical technology can be seen in steadily decreasing patient stays and lengthening life expectancy rates.

Nurses still need to rely on their eyes, their minds, and their intuition in order to read patients and reveal stories that vital signs and statistics alone don’t tell. Despite all these advances there is no reason to believe that demand for nurses will ebb as a result of the turning tides of technology.

Throughout the years there have been many changes in the nursing profession as a whole. We are looking towards a bright new future for nurses and the nursing field. Nurses continue to be the heart and soul of medical institutions across the country and around the world. It is with great interest that we look for the changes that will take place in nursing over the next 50 years.


History of American Uniforms

RN Hourly Rate

Changes in Nursing

Nursing Shortage

Winning Essays

Nursing Today and Yesterday

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