For some, working is the best way to retire
A unique factory where workers are well into their 70s, 80s, and 90sBy Michele Harris
About four years ago, Caitrin Lynch happened into a needle factory near her home in Needham, Mass. Curiosity about the needles the factory made is what drew her there. She had recently completed a book about the very young girls who work in Sri Lankan garment factories and thought the needle company might have made the sewing needles she had seen in those young hands half a world away.
As it turned out, Vita Needle did not make sewing needles at all, but once inside, Lynch was struck by what she saw. “Walking into a factory where, really, the first impression you get is gray hair, just completely surprised me,” she says. Lynch had entered an industrial workplace where the median age of the workers is 74. Where people routinely work flexible hours and shifts. And where people into their 90s are engaged and proud of the work they do and the income they earn.
“This challenged my understanding of retirement and what it takes to run a factory and people being productive,” says Lynch.
Vita Needle, a small family-owned business with about 40 employees on the shop floor, challenges all sorts of assumptions people have about the essence of work and retirement. Lynch, an associate professor of anthropology at Olin College, set out to explore what sets Vita Needle apart from other workplaces; her findings are recounted in Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory (Cornell University Press).
For five years, Lynch immersed herself in the culture of Vita Needle. She interviewed workers, studied their routines, and even learned how to complete work on the shop floor, all in an effort to discover what motivated workers who were well into their retirement years to stay on the job.
Lynch soon found herself among a diverse group of people. There was “Charles” (Lynch used pseudonyms to protect people’s privacy), a 72-year-old retired high tech sales manager with a master’s degree in business who referred to Vita as a “men’s club” and a “refuge for old people.” Retired architect “Jim,” 74, saw his work at Vita as more like a vacation than a job. And 99-year-old retired waitress Rosa Finnegan (her real name) who says, “It’s a wonderful place to be when you get to be my age…. I don’t care whether I am old or not. I still learn new things here.”
What Vita Needle’s older workers have in common is their desire to feel connected to others through their jobs. And unlike many younger workers, they are not eager to advance up the corporate ladder or stress out over office politics. “It’s really important for people to feel like they belong to something and that they matter, and work provides that,” says Lynch.
“Work in retirement needs to feel different than work did in other stages of life,” she adds. “People don’t want work that they bring home every day or work that takes them away from family. They don’t want work that is stressful. Many studies show that in retirement, people are looking for part-time work or flexible hours. There should be a way to structure this work that still allows people to pursue their retirement dreams.”
The advanced age of the typical Vita worker occurred gradually and naturally. Vita Needle’s owner and president, Fred Hartman, says he noticed that his older workers displayed the kind of reliability, dedication, and work ethic that any employer looks for, so he began to make a conscious effort to hire older workers. But Hartman also points out that Vita Needle is not a social experiment. It’s a business that is in business to make money.
Vita Needle is a unique example of how older workers benefit businesses, and Lynch sees some indication that other companies are beginning to see the value of an older workforce. “Employers often don’t think of older workers as a valid category of workers,” she says. “But as Vita Needle shows, they can be perfect. Other employers, especially retail examples such as Walgreens or CVS, have dedicated programs just for older workers.”
When her book was competed, Lynch returned to Vita Needle to give each and every worker a copy. Of course, they were excited to see their stories in print, but Lynch recounts one particularly touching moment that for her personifies the culture of Vita Needle. “I handed a copy to a man of about 29 and he rubbed the cover on which there is a photo of a worker who is 91, and this 29-year-old said, ‘“I love this man, he is my best friend!”’
For more information, visit retirementontheline.net.