In a needle factory in the Boston suburbs, the median age of the employees is 74 and the eldest worker recently stopped working a week before she turned 101. Today the oldest worker is 95. The workers exemplify a range of personalities and class backgrounds and a diversity of reasons for working. Even those who come out of financial need also seek social engagement and purpose. Indeed workers often invoke the health risks of idle retirement and claim that “working here keeps me alive.” In an era when people live longer and seek work past the traditional retirement age, the Vita Needle Company of Needham, Massachusetts, provides lessons about the value of older workers.

Vita Needle is a family-owned factory that was founded in 1932 and makes needles, stainless steel tubing and pipes, and custom fabricated parts. This workplace has become much more than a place to earn cash to the employees: It has become a site for narrating lives, finding value, and asserting personhood. In his 1975 book called Working, journalist Studs Terkel wrote that work “is about a search… for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Let’s think about work as a search for “recognition as well as cash,” as Terkel described it. And let’s consider the wider context: for older adults who may feel profoundly unrecognized and invisible in many aspects of their lives (as I have heard from many older adults in my study), there seems to be a special significance to work and the recognition it may bring.

As a cultural anthropologist, I immersed myself in life at Vita Needle for nearly five years (more intensively in some years than in others) in order to learn what, on top of a paycheck, Vita Needle provides its employees. The story I tell is based on interviews but also on my own work on the shop floor. The distinctive research method of cultural anthropology is called “participant observation”: we immerse ourselves in the societies we study in order to understand experiences and meaning-making from an insider’s perspective. Sometimes we study our own societies, sometimes societies quite foreign to us. In this article, I will briefly introduce (by pseudonym) a few Vita Needle workers, and then point to some wider lessons of the anthropological study I conducted to understand American values about retirement and work.

Meet Carl and Ed

Legs kicking and fully awake at 3:15 in the morning, 79-year-old Carl Wilson figures he might as well go to work. Five mornings a week, Carl, who suffers from sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, leaves the house well before dawn without waking his wife and sets off for Vita Needle, where he arrives in less than ten minutes and parks his car on the street out front. The downtown parking meters do not need to be fed at 3:30 a.m., and he will make sure to move his car to a nearby parking lot before 8:00 a.m. A retired tool designer whose father was a local policeman, Carl has lived in this town for most of his life. Carl used to spend his early mornings at the Dunkin’ Donuts socializing with his friends, who were mostly municipal workers—postal workers, police, firefighters, teachers. Carl says the police all recognize his car and know what he is doing, so his lone vehicle in front of the factory will not raise suspicion on the otherwise empty street.

Coworkers start to arrive around 5:00 a.m., and by 6:00 there are a handful of people—long before any supervisors or managers arrive. By 7:00 a.m. the shop is busy. Within a few hours it will be full of all the sounds of a typical day at a needle factory. Whenever someone shows up, he or she will clock in, sometimes leave a snack at the counter (sweets go over best), and then stop to visit those already in the shop for a short conversation and update since they last saw each other. How was your grandson’s violin concert? That pea soup was delicious! How is the arthritis? I will be leaving early today to have that mole looked at. Or, from a conversation tomorrow, undoubtedly commentary on the Patriots defeating the Broncos.

Throughout the day there is noise of air compressors, saws, sandblasters, and staking, stopping only at 10:00 for the coffee break and at noon for lunch. At all times, conversations occur, not all work-related, and there are occasional sounds of laughter. Often someone is humming, and if Ed Mitchell is around, he is most likely singing. Ed assumes he is doing it quietly to himself, but the noise of the machine he often works makes him project his voice to hear himself, and he does not know that others in the shop catch every word. He is on a machine in the corner that flares open the tips of short tubes, a machine famous among the workers for making the operator feel as if the machine is working the operator rather than vice versa (picture Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times).

I remember in particular one sultry summer Friday afternoon when there were only five of us left on the shop floor. Ed was off in the corner, on his machine, singing lines from “Old Man River,” Paul Robeson: “You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain; Body all achin’ and wracked with pain; Tote that barge! Lift that bale!” Seventy-six-year-old Maurice Kempton and I were staking needles (affixing shafts to bases) and we had been discussing whether this was a song from Porgy and Bess or Show Boat. (It’s the latter.) After some time, Ed got up for a break, came over to me, and sang, “Tote that barge! Lift that bale!” When I asked him why he was singing that song, he said, “Because this is like you are stacking the hay and loading the bales.” This coming from an 81-year-old man who joined Vita Needle when he was 74, and the last time he had worked a factory job—the last time he had even used a time card—was back in high school, from which he had graduated in 1944.

After a long career as a middle school English teacher, Ed is spending his conventional retirement years far from retired. When he is not at Vita Needle, you might find him at the cash register at the Walgreens pharmacy in the next town over. He also enjoys his time with his wife of forty-eight years (when she is not working, as a grocery store cashier) and with his children and grandchildren when they come to town. Ed is working in his eighties because of (as he candidly puts it) “poor real estate investments in the 1980s.” He states plainly that he is here for the money, but he also notes that he likes the interactions with his coworkers. But there are some aspects he does not care for, such as those that make him feel that he is merely “stacking the hay and loading the bales.” His master’s degree in education certainly did not lead him to anticipate doing unskilled manual labor well after he ended his teaching career.

Top Lessons from Vita Needle

By paying close attention to the dynamics of work and life at Vita Needle, we can draw the following wider lessons.

1. Work during the retirement years provides a paycheck… and much more. We know that the absence of work during retirement has an economic impact on retirees. Less obvious are the social implications that result from the absence of work. Vita Needle’s older workers exhibit a range of personalities and backgrounds and have diverse reasons for working. Even those who come out of financial need also seek social engagement and purpose. For people of all ages, work provides more than a paycheck. Work can provide a route to social contact, enable a sense of contribution, and offer relief from domestic troubles. In U.S. society, paid work is central to identity, and non-working adults often struggle to feel self-worth when their lives do not live up to the cultural and economic norm. If Americans measure themselves by work, imagine how awkward the social position of retirees can be. Indeed, retirees often ask each other, “What did you do in real life?” Retirement is a complex ideal in the American context. Many Americans look forward to and plan for this life-stage, and they consider it a phase of life in which one is no longer ruled by clocks, schedules, and bosses. But, on the other hand, many people still want to work in the conventional retirement years because they believe that a person’s value correlates with the ability to earn income. The workers at Vita Needle show us what meaningful work can look like in the retirement years.

2. Retirement work needs to feel different than work at other life stages. Many older adults certainly are capable of working, and many want to work. But because of the different role work plays at this life stage, they want work that feels a lot different than it did at earlier points (when they were paying mortgages, raising children, etc.). Vita Needle’s older workers describe their work in this factory as remarkably different from previous work. They value its flexible hours, its easy integration into family life, how they are recognized for their contributions, and that they have coworkers who depend on them. When we pay attention to the meaning of work, we start to understand something new about a situation one might at first glance assume to be exploitative. The Vita Needle case challenges us to think in new ways about orthodox labor categories (retired, illegal, immoral). The workers at Vita Needle have actually created a new stage in a worker’s life, and this may well be the first look at a future to come. But there is one limitation: because Vita Needle’s labor arrangement depends largely on the workers’ receipt of state-provisioned pensions and health-care coverage (Social Security and Medicare), this case leads us to wonder about the implications of a world without those guarantees.

3. Rich connections are forged when old and young work together. Designers of elder-friendly communities and environments increasingly aim to create intergenerational programming. Employers increasingly try to make the most of multigenerational workforces they may accidentally have in their employ. What does rich intergenerational contact really look like? At Vita Needle, four generations of employees work on tight deadlines in a mixed gender and multistage assembly where the quality and timing of one person’s work affects the next. Vita Needle has employees in every age decade from their teens through to (until recently) 100—talk about intergenerational contact! In interviews, workers in their teens, twenties, and thirties invariably reflect positively on working with older adults. One nineteen year old, who had often visited his grandfather in a nursing home before coming to Vita Needle, noted that Vita Needle allowed for more authentic and comfortable interaction across generations because they were all “in it together.” By contrast, he found that “for some reason I just could never talk to the people in the nursing home. I don’t know that it was, like, the environment we were in. I felt like I was in their territory. . . . There’s something to be said for the fact that you’re all kind of doing something together.” The older workers, for their part, spoke positively about what they could learn from younger workers, at times overcoming stereotypes they may have had of their younger coworkers. This example challenges our assumptions that there is invariably a “generation gap” in a multigenerational workplace.

4. Under the right circumstances, work arrangements can benefit employers and also workers. This example of “eldersourcing” (sourcing labor from older adults) may provide a model for providing financial and social value for older adults, and for reinvigorating the U.S. economy. Vita Needle workers and employers claim that eldersourcing is a net positive, economically and socially. In fact, both groups use work to achieve ends other than what is obvious (e.g., for the employers it is not simply profit; for the workers it is not simply a paycheck). Some of the retirees claim to need money; all say they want social contact. Vita Needle’s president explains that he employs older workers as a social good—to counter adverse health impacts of isolated old age. Yet he and observers invariably note the success of this business model. This case shows that a practice can make both economic and social sense: eldersourcing can be positive for employers and employees, though there is plenty of debate and discussion as both sides make sense of their experiences and their goals. The Vita Needle story challenges us to move analyses of labor and capital beyond the common assumed dichotomy of exploited and exploiters. Questions of exploitation remain important, but the answers are not black-and-white. In the end, the Vita Needle case leads us to think in new ways about work.

5. Membership and mattering are key values for today’s older Americans. Many older Americans value doing something that is meaningful to others as well as to themselves (mattering) and doing it with others (membership). Mattering refers to the sense of relevance and value that comes from knowing one’s life makes a difference to others; it provides an answer to the question “So what?” that people often ask themselves as they grow older. Membership refers to social contact, connection to others, a sense of belonging, being able to point to an “us” in opposition to a “them.” While we can analyze membership and mattering for people of any age, by listening to the stories of Vita Needle’s workers we learn that there is something distinctive about these sentiments for older adults. Many people want to remain busy and engaged throughout their lives, and they want to be recognized for the contributions they make. Vita means “life” in Latin, and indeed it is life (and life with meaning) that is created at Vita Needle, where not only needles but also lives are made on the shop floor. Retirees and older adults simply want to continue to live and to be part of life, where life itself means community engagement and contribution. Vita Needle is a place of life for people who may otherwise be written off as nonproductive, useless, invisible, and no longer human. When Vita Needle’s workers assert that “working here keeps me alive,” they draw a concrete connection between work and life—and in so doing add complexity to the oft-heard expression that gets at questions of work and value in capitalist societies: “Do you ‘live to work’ or ‘work to live?’” We see in Vita Needle, one path for engagement and recognition—for life.

6. The life-stage called “retirement” can use some rethinking. The recent economic crisis is forcing people to rethink the stages of their lives. With expanded longevity, the retirement phase may constitute one-third of a person’s lifetime. We have firm cultural ideals about retirement and yet many people in or near retirement now realize that the content and meaning of this life phase is up for grabs. The Vita Needle example shows us that perhaps for some people, we can work in our retirement years and still fulfill our retirement dreams.

 Caitrin Lynch is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, a grduate of Bates College, and the author of the book “Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in An American Factory” (2012, Cornell University Press, Some of the material in this column has been adapted from Retirement on the Line.

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