Changes and Challenges: How nursing has changed over the past 50 years

Susanna Kahr

Healthcare just wouldn’t be the same without dedicated nurses. But, whilst nurses have played a big role in the healthcare industry since the beginning, nurses haven’t always received the training and respect that they deserve. In the past 50 years, the role, uniform, salary, training and workplaces of nurses have changed dramatically and made nursing into the well-respected career it is today. Hop in our time machine as see how nursing has changed over the past 50 years. 

From white caps to scrubs

Let’s start with the most obvious change in the last 50 years – nursing uniform. It might sound crazy, but if you were a nurse in the 1960s, you would have still been expected to go to work in a traditional dress and a cap! Throughout the ‘70s, the uniform was modernized, meaning that the dresses were shortened, and caps all but disappeared. In the ‘80s, nurses started wearing disposable aprons instead of traditional dresses and by the ‘90s nurses were wearing scrubs, just like the other medical professionals. I bet you’re glad you no longer have to starch your dress and wear a pristine white cap to work! 

Are you still confronted with gender stereotypes as a nurse? Check out our tips on how to challenge them!

From $5200 a year, to $5200 a month (or more…)

In the 1960s and 70s, nurses made an average of $5,200 a year! Thankfully, the majority of nurses now make around that amount each month! Of course, it depends on where you live, how much training and experience you have, but RNs can make as much as $72,000 a year today, and often start out with a yearly salary of around $40,000.

“Great organization to work for with flexible hours and great pay.” – anonymous employer review at ResCare

From untrained assistants to medical professionals

50 years ago, nurses received very little formal training. In fact, the only requirements were that you were a woman and that you were willing to put in the hours to look after patients. In the 1960s, women were seen as caretakers in society, so it was assumed that nursing was just an extension of what they did at home. 

Unlike the rigorous training that nurses receive today, women learned their medical skills from their mothers or other nurses. They were taught basic health care skills as well as hospital etiquette, such as how to address patients, how to dress, and to treat patients like they are guests in their home. And, because the role required less formal education, and nurses had a “rudimentary” understanding of scientific medical care, they were predominantly seen as assistants to the doctors and weren’t expected to be able to advise on the patient’s treatment or care. 

Fast forward to 2019, and nursing now makes up the largest workforce in healthcare! In fact, as America’s baby boomer population ages the profession is expected to grow by 22% by 2026.This demand for nurses, combined with the fact that the technology within healthcare has advanced substantially, mean that training to be an RN now involves undertaking various higher education certifications and degrees. 

“DaVita provided paid training that was very thorough and taught me so much.” – anonymous employer review at DaVita

There are many different routes to become an RN including nursing programs, specialties, degrees, and certifications for different types of nursing including new fields like forensic nursing and informatics, but one thing’s for sure, you need rigorous training in order to provide healthcare to patients, unlike 50 years ago. Today, nurses need to be highly trained, well-educated, critical thinkers so that they can make complex clinical decisions that 50 years ago would have been made by doctors instead. What’s more, nurses have switched from being caretakers to being advocates of their patients.

From the battlefield to the hospital 

It wasn’t that long ago that nursing either took place in the home, or on the battlefield. 50 years ago, home visits were more common than visits to the hospital as the hospital was generally reserved for those who were extremely ill, badly injured, or near death. It was only when the first training programs were introduced for nursing that nurses started working in hospitals.

Today, nurses work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, home health care services, or assisted living facilities. Nurses can also work in schools, correctional facilities or the military. Many nurses also work as travel nurses and travel around the United States to work in different hospitals for varying amounts of time. 

More than 50% of RNs are employed in hospitals today, but this trend looks set to reverse. As the baby boomer generation is aging, it’s becoming more and more clear that people prefer to be treated at home. This means that nursing jobs in assisted care and home health are the fastest growing healthcare jobs in America right now, which is great news if you’re interested in nursing in the home setting! 

“Working in assisted care is a fulfilling job aside from all the difficulties. Challenging at times, easy in others, but fulfilling all the same.” – anonymous employer review at Balfour Senior Living


It’s clear that nursing has come a long way in the last 50 years! The good news is that it’s a career that will continue to evolve in the future as technology advances and the demand for nurses increases. Are you an RN? Let us know what working as a nurse is like today by writing us a review of your employer on kununu!


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