Objective: To compare and contrast the reasons that nurses and nursing students provide for entering and leaving nursing. Design: A quantitative cross sectional cohort design with online survey. Setting: Regional public health service district and regional university nursing school. Subjects: Nurses (n= 272) and nursing students (n=259). Main outcome measures: Demographics of nurses and nursing students including age, sex and length of time as a nurse, and reasons for entering and leaving the profession. Results: Among the nurses 88.4% were female and 37% 50 years of age or older. Almost half (45.3%) of the nursing students were 30 years of age or older and 44.1% of all students were working as nursing assistants or enrolled nurses whilst studying. Of these working students 32.5% had been nursing in excess of five years. Self interest, vocation and altruism were identified by both students and nurses as the main reasons for entering nursing. Respondents above and below 30 years of age gave the same reasons for entering nursing. Choice of factors for considering leaving nursing differed between groups and ages. Compared to students, nurses were most likely to cite disillusionment with nursing. Students under 30 years of age indicated pursuit of another career and starting a family to be the major factors while older students offered disillusionment with nursing and health concerns. Conclusions: Retention strategies may need to differ for the age of nurse. However, recruitment needs to be informed by the altruistic and vocational reasons why nurses and nursing students are drawn to nursing rather than focussing on perceived generational differences.