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Retirement on the Line: An Interview with Author & Anthropologist Caitrin Lynch

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 18 December 2012

Vita Needle factory workers

We all love our weekends, but the senior workers at a Massachusetts factory love their work weeks even more.

That’s what cultural anthropologist Caitrin Lynch discovered after stumbling upon Vita Needle Company in Needham, Massachusetts, a truly unique workplace where the median age of workers is 74. She shared her fascinating findings in a book, Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory, and she also relayed some of her experiences to me in a recent phone interview.

Rosa Finnegan

Perhaps the story which stands out most is that of 100-year-old Rosa Finnegan, the factory’s oldest employee. Finnegan can barely move her hands in the morning because of her arthritis, but it’s her work that gives her a reason to get up in the morning at all. Finnegan’s daily morning routine includes getting up and dressed, packing a lunch, then running her hands under warm water to limber them up before heading to work, where it takes her almost a half hour to get to her station because she’s busy checking in with her co-workers. “She says that once she’s on the floor and in the midst of her work, she doesn’t feel the pain of her arthritis,” according to Lynch.

Besides the distraction from physical pain, the job is more than a paycheck. The fact that it’s real work and not charity gives Finnegan purpose, says Lynch, and she’s glad to have people looking for her. Finnegan has worked since the day she finished 8th grade, and having the job makes her feel like “she’s still got it,” Lynch says.

Vita Needle produces hollow needles for industrial and medical purposes. Knowing these needles are going somewhere to be used, and knowing that the company is successful, are what keep Finnegan and her colleagues focused on the task at hand.

With so many products and services being automated, mass produced, outsourced, or imported, the value of working with your hands does not hold the place of esteem it once did or still should in our society. That visceral quality, that idea of “I made this thing, here it is in my hands, and I know where it’s going,” says Lynch, really grounds so many of Vita Needle’s workers.

By the way, not all of Vita Needle’s employees are seniors.

There’s a wonderful intergenerational aspect to the factory, reports Lynch. “There are people in every decade,” she said. “There’s even an 18-year-old employee whose grandmother works there too.”

Sometimes young people struggle to find things in common with their grandparents, but they find ways to connect with people at work, where there have the common ground of their workplace. As a result, there are great relationships that form, a camaraderie that develops, a mutually beneficial synergy.

“They learn so much from each other, and stereotypes explode when people work on a team together,” said Lynch.

So how did Caitrin Lynch find this place?

Before discovering Vita Needle, Lynch’s research was focused primarily on the social and political contexts for people’s work. She spent a year and a half in the garment factories of Sri Lanka (many of which export goods to the U.S.), talking to young women workers who were mostly in the 18-24 age range. Sometimes she even went to the homes of these women, trying to understand the value of their jobs in an economic, social and cultural context.

But Lynch wanted to get beyond the headlines. “We have a nuanced understanding of who these people are and what their lives are like and what this outsourcing means,” said Lynch.

Vita Needle factory worker

That’s when she discovered Vita Needle.

“I understood the wider context of factory work overseas, but what about in the U.S.? I also wondered why it hadn’t closed down and been moved to China, India or Sri Lanka,” Lynch explained.

“It ended up bringing me into this whole world of aging and retirement in the U.S.,” she said. “Here, we have certain retirement ideals, but very few people actually live those out.”

If anything, Lynch found that many people don’t want to have this period of “perceived un-productivity,” or they do the “retired thing” for 6 months, quickly get bored, and miss the community aspect of work. Others may desire the sipping-drinks-on-the-beach model of retirement, but for many, it’s just not practical or possible.

All of these intriguing questions — about retirement, about productivity, about our country’s notions and ideals on aging, about the ways men and women experience retirement differently, and so much more — are explored in depth in Lynch’s book, intertwined with stories like Rosa Finnegan’s.

I strongly encourage you to get a copy of the book, to learn more about these amazing workers but also about Vita Needle as a model employer. The company offers flexible hours for their older employees, which gives them time to get to their doctor’s appointments, see their granddaughter’s violin concerts, or participate in a Tai Chi class — essentially, they can still work AND pursue their retirement dreams, Lynch explains. Yet above those great benefits, the flexibility translates into a highly valuable, non-cash commodity to the senior worker: control.

“When people are looking for work in this stage of life, it feels different,” said Lynch. “They don’t want pressure, don’t want to bring work home, and don’t want to have to come in at a certain time.”

And although seniors are living longer, healthier lives, many seniors still feel invisible or useless in today’s world. “As a result, having a place where you are important and valued, a place where you belong, is so important for elders,” Lynch says. “We have to think of more ways to make people feel like they matter, and an authentic environment like Vita Needle is best — a successful business — so they don’t feel marginalized like they might if they spend their time playing pool at a senior center.”

Appropriately, “vita” means life in Latin; says Lynch: “People are really getting their lives at Vita Needle, because it provides a sense of life and purpose to the workers. In many ways it’s an idyllic relationship, and it’s a win-win for the employees and the employer.”

Want to learn more about Caitrin’s work?

Get the book here: http://retirementontheline.net.

Check out these web-based articles about her research:

 

Thank you so much, Caitrin, for sharing your story with our readers!

Photos courtesy of Caitrin Lynch

 

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