Work in Old Age: What's the Point?

Article excerpt

Work in old age: What's the point? Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory By Caitrin Lynch Cornell University Press, $21.95, 228 pages, ISBN 9780801477782

Cultural anthropologist Caitrin Lynch does not do things by halves. When she set out to investigate the nuances of work life and retirement for older adults, Lynch, like other intrepid writers before her (notably, Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America), experienced her subject's lives firsthand-in this case, at the Vita Needle Company in Needham, Mass. For nearly five years, Lynch worked at Vita Needle, "in order to learn what, on top of a paycheck, Vita Needle provides [to] its employees." The result is the enthnography, Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory.

"This book explores what work means for people in the United States who are of conventional retirement age," writes Lynch in her introduction. Vita Needle seems a perfect venue for such a foray as, says the author, "the median age of the... forty production floor employees is 74... the eldest is Rosa Finnegan, a 99-year-old former waitress who joined the factory when she was 85."

Operating since 1932, Vita Needle is a family-owned company, now run and staffed by fourth- and fifth-generation members of the Hartman clan. It makes hollow needles for many purposes, such as "dispensing glue, inflating basketballs, and performing brain surgery." Though company president Fred Hartman hires people of all ages- from teenagers to nonagenerians- he believes, from experience with his older, longstanding employees, that older workers have a strong work ethic and a wealth of experience to bring to bear. Not to mention that older people are most willing to work part time- an arrangement that allows flexibility with spousal caretaking, going to medical appointments and spending time with grandchildren.

In 1997, on the occasion of Vita Needle's 56th anniversary, Hartman announced to the press the company's intention to routinely employ older workers. This employment practice, Lynch says, contributes to Hartman's savvy business model: "In media interviews, Fred 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, with Fred leveraging his employment policy as an ethical business practice..."

In two parts, "Up the Stairs," and "In the Press," Lynch offers five chapters that frame an intimate view of the Vita Needle culture from the perspectives of management, older workers and the media. The author's story of working at Vita Needle, her cogent "in the field" analysis and observations, and the workers' first-person accounts blend to form an accessible, sensitive narrative that examines the "ethical and cultural" questions about employing older people and what aging, work and retirement mean to this cohort.

"Up the Stairs," is an apt title for this section that takes us inside Vita Needle and onto the factory floor, for the only entrance to this workplace is via a narrow stairway with 19 steps. Lynch notes that the stairs are "a complex symbol" for Vita Needle workers: "They invoke issues such as the stigma of being old in the United States and the consequent feelings of invisibility and loneliness, for they lead to a place free of stigma and isolation." Being able to climb these stairs, says Lynch, means these workers are "making it to a place where one can be productive, alive, and vital."

Section one fascinates as it explores the work, its process, relationships at work and daily interactions that give Vita Needle workers a sense of usefulness. Also explored is the sense of family and community among Vita's workers, and the issue of "exploitation," as the company pays no retirement or health benefits, and pays just above minimum wage to their mostly Caucasian older workforce. …