Making Needles, Making Lives

[The following text is excerpted from pp. 1-4] 

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 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.1

Carl finds his Vita Needle key on the same keychain where he keeps those for his car and house, lets himself in, punches in on the time clock, and gets to work shipping needles. Shortly after he arrives, 83-year-old bookkeeper Abigail White arrives to sort through paperwork from the previous afternoon (she would have left work by 1:00 p.m. at the latest). Abigail works in the office and Carl on the main shop floor. Carl tells me he likes the two hours of work he does before anyone else arrives to join him in the shop; he can get a lot done when there are no distractions. But he also likes it when he has company—people with whom he can “shoot the breeze.” 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. The right-hand row of time cards is for those who have punched in, and soon there will be ten or so cards in the “in” column.

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. The loud hum of air compressors will be punctuated by the banging sound of needles being staked or stamped, and interrupted at times by the ear-splitting noises of saws or sandblasters or the more deeply resonant bursts from grinders, drills, and wire brushes. 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! Did you see Ortiz sock it out of the park? How is the arthritis? I will be leaving early today to have that mole looked at.

Throughout the day the noise of the compressors, saws, sandblasters, and staking continues, stopping only at 10:00 for the coffee break and at noon for lunch. The most persistent sound, which becomes an ambient noise that you start to not even notice, is the pounding sound of the cannulas (needle shafts) as they are “staked”—that is, attached to their hubs (bases). Pch-chew. Pch-chew. A solid bang, followed by the release of air from the staker. Over and over again. This repetitive and consistent rhythm is occasionally interrupted by the loud, grinding sound of a chop saw biting through tubes of stainless steel, producing a grating noise reminiscent of fingernails scraping on a chalkboard (but longer and much louder). The machine called the “popcorn popper” makes the continuous bursting noises that earned it the nickname. But underneath the constant noise, it is, in a funny sort of way, tranquil here.

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”: “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 1944.2

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.

The motivations for and experiences of working in retirement are varied and contradictory. This book explores what work means for people in the United States who are of conventional retirement age. To examine issues of aging, work, meaning, and purpose, I focus on Vita Needle Company, a family-owned factory that produces stainless steel needles in the Boston suburb of Needham. As of this writing, in May 2011, the median age of the roughly forty production floor employees is 74 and the eldest is Rosa Finnegan, a 99-year-old former waitress who joined the factory when she was 85.3

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 “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, but even when we study our own, we remain outsiders and can never fully access an insider viewpoint. Though as anthropologists we can get quite close, and we use research methods and narrative techniques to bring out the insider perspectives, our stories always reflect our own priorities and perspectives that come from our personal biographies and professional positions.4 I was drawn into Vita Needle and became part of the story itself, and so these pages include my personal reflections on the complexity of a research design that required my own immersion in order to explore lives and dreams and situate them within the context of a broader analysis. It is my hope that readers will discover as much about their own views on aging and retirement as they do about people at Vita Needle.5

[The following text is excerpted from pp. 8-12]

There is more to work than the paycheck. Work can enable social engagement, provide a sense of contribution, and offer a respite from domestic troubles. In American society, paid work is integral to one’s sense of self-worth and value, and nonworking adults struggle to develop a sense of value that counters the cultural and economic norm. How does one respond to the common question “What do you do?” if you are a stay-at-home mom (perceived by many as nonworking), unemployed, or a retiree? One sign of how Americans measure themselves by work is that retirees often ask each other, “What did you do in real life?” The subjects of this book are older adults—past typical retirement age. They live at a confluence of contradictory social and economic values.

On one hand, many have long looked forward to and planned for a life stage called retirement, a phase of life in which one is no longer ruled by clocks, schedules, and bosses. This is especially true for the many people with alienating, demeaning, difficult, or unpleasant jobs that simply have not provided meaning for them—though even here, work can be an important aspect of identity, a point vividly made by the journalist Studs Terkel in his book Working and in the Broadway musical based on it.17 This retirement phase is idealized in American society in many ways, often through romanticized images of golfing, traveling, fishing, knitting, and relaxing in recliner chairs. (Have a look at the retirement greeting cards at your local pharmacy for relevant cultural images: fishing poles, torn-up or empty “to do” lists, numberless clocks.) The dominant U.S. norm is that as we age, we transition from a period of labor productivity to a period of nonproductivity, beginning in our sixties.

On the other hand, many American older adults want to be engaged in work well past traditional retirement age. If during the lengthy period of labor productivity, our value is measured by our ability to earn income, how do we measure our value when we are nonproductive? Many people want to remain busy and engaged throughout their lives, and they want to be recognized for the contributions they make. Retirement thus is a complicated ideal for people across social classes—not only because of the cultural connotations and experiences that accompany it but also because of the economic position in which retirees find themselves.18

Retirement has long been unattainable without middle-class financial security, but with that security eroding (stock portfolios and real estate decreasing in value, pensions disappearing, health-care costs rising), retirement is increasingly unattainable for the middle classes as well.19The global financial crisis that began in roughly December 2007 has adversely affected many older adults in the United States and elsewhere. In publications including the New York Times, the Economist, and the AARP Bulletin, stories abound about older Americans who have had to delay or come out of retirement. Some parents have interrupted retirement plans to support unemployed adult children, and there are reports that traditional teenager summer jobs have been filled by older adults.20 Even those in the upper middle class have been affected as many private retirement portfolios lost as much as 25 percent of their value during the financial crisis.21

Some companies have been targeting older adults since at least a decade before the crisis. The retailer CVS offers a “snowbird” program in which older adults may work summers up north and winters down south.22 The AARP national conventions include a job fair where numerous employers recruit older workers— Home Depot, Walgreens, and Walmart, to name a few.23 In the first decade of the twenty-first century, politicians, policymakers, and employers scrambled to create employment programs for older workers. In 2006, the National Governors Association (NGA) Policy Academy (a policy arm of the association) developed a multiyear program to assist states in promoting civic engagement among older adults by providing more avenues for volunteering and employment. The program’s impetus is summarized in a 2008 NGA report: “The percentage of the U.S. population that is 65 years of age and older is expected to increase by nearly 60 percent during the next four decades. This demographic shift will have important implications for state action, including helping to ensure older adults remain healthy and active as they age.”24

Even if retirement is financially feasible, it is no longer desirable for an increasing number of older adults in the United States. As a New York Times journalist explained in a 2008 article entitled “Whatever You Do, Call It Work,” “It is better now in retirement to be a consultant, an independent contractor, an owner of a business, a dedicated volunteer, a portfolio manager, a pro bono worker or any variety of self-employment, as long as it is perceived as work.”25 There are a range of reasons for this desire to do something that is perceived as work, and my own interviews and discussions with workers from Vita Needle, Office Depot, CVS, and elsewhere reveal the diversity and complexity of people’s motivations to work in typical retirement years.

Older workers seek from work a paycheck but also a sense of belonging and friendship, as well the experience of productivity, purpose, and usefulness. Grace King, at 94, says she was “going crazy” in retirement: “Nothing to do all day long, and it drove me crazy. I wanted to be busy.” So Grace ended up at Vita Needle, starting a new job when she was 77. Grace and her peers subscribe to a “busy ethic” in their retirement years. This is a term used by sociologist David Ekerdt to describe a concept that has arisen in response to the leisure-filled stage of life called retirement. In a society that values productivity and a work ethic, retirement is “morally managed and legitimated on a day-to-day basis in part by an ethic that esteems leisure that is earnest, occupied, and filled with activity—a ‘busy ethic.’”26 For the Vita Needle employees, the key to successful aging is not a busy retired life, a life of “busy leisure.” Rather, it is a busy working life where one contributes to the economy and participates in an interdependent production process with peers. Earning money is important to these people—they are explicit that their sense of purpose and meaning comes in large part from the paycheck they earn. This is distinct from people who find purpose in volunteering. The sense of meaningful and collective contribution is reflected in Vita Needle workers’ common deployment of the phrase “making money for Fred,” the business owner. As I discuss in chapter 1, this is a phrase usually used positively (as they highlight the value of their labor), though sometimes critically (as they question who profits the most). Vita Needle employees, even those collecting pensions from career jobs, do not consider themselves retired; indeed, some openly scoff at the concept—and frequently at the concept of golfing as a middle-class retirement ideal in the United States. As one man explained, he prefers to do something “practical and productive.”

Although journalists and policymakers from around the world have looked at Vita Needle as a model of elder employment, I make no claims for the replicability of this particular model. I know this is a small, quirky factory that happens to work well for the employer who seeks to employ older workers and for some older workers who seek meaning, purpose, productivity, and a paycheck in their retirement years. A number of factors contribute to the success of this “eldersourcing”27 model, including the nature of the product, the location of the business in a suburb in a high-technology region of the country (particularly with a number of start-up medical device companies), the personalities of the employers, the goals of and dynamics among the employees, and the relatively high percentage of older adults living in the area.28

Even though there are a number of aspects that make Vita Needle seem unique, there are lessons we can take from this example: lessons about what some Americans—and white American men in particular—seek in their retirement years; lessons about how older adults seek and create meaning in the world around them; lessons about the role of work in the creation of meaning, purpose, and life; and lessons about the need for government support of older adults (pensions and universal health care) to facilitate models such as this. My exploration of the specifics of this factory and its workers can be extended to a larger social and economic context. Sure, the Vita Needle case is unique, but I can situate its uniqueness in the forces that constitute it—forces that are not unique but that are deeply situated in American society and in its valuation of busy-ness, of mattering, and of work as an important route to meaning.29

Finally, I do assert that this book can offer key insights in light of the anticipated near-term increase in labor force participation by older workers in the United States. As a 2009 study noted, “According to one government estimate, 93% of the growth in the U.S. labor force from 2006 to 2016 will be among workers ages 55 and older.”30 The forerunners in these demographic and social shifts are the Vita Needle workers who have vibrant work lives well into their seventies, eighties, and nineties.

[Footnotes from the above excerpted text. For complete bibliographic entries, see the book.]

1. To protect the privacy of the research subjects, I have changed the names and some identifying features (such as age, family details, previous occupation, and current role at Vita) of most people in this book. In some cases I have combined the stories of two or more people or changed certain cosmetic details of their stories. I use real names of politicians, professionals, and the family that owns Vita Needle. I do refer to the real names and authentic details of some people’s lives if I am referring to the mass media depiction of them. Rosa Finnegan, for example, has been the main subject of media interest, and so my discussion of her motivations and experiences is based largely on what has been reported in the mass media.

2. Ages of Vita’s employees are as of 2008, the year of most of my shop-floor fieldwork. The exception is the age of Rosa Finnegan, Vita’s eldest, who is 99 as of the last writing in May 2011. As will become evident, Rosa’s age is significant to many people inside and outside Vita.

3. Median age calculated in April 2011, as reported to me in May 2011 by Fred Hartman, Vita’s president.

4. Cf. Burawoy (1991, 284), who writes, “But participant observers differ from participants precisely in their status as observers, which gives them insights into the limits of communicative action and the sources of its distortion, that is, how the system world denies freedom and autonomy in the lifeworld. As observers who also stand outside the lifeworlds they study, scientists can gain insight into the properties of the system world, which integrates the intended and unintended consequences of instrumental action into relatively autonomous institutions. Indeed, these can be understood only from the standpoint of the observer.”

5. The practice of writing ethnographies in the present tense (using the “ethnographic present”) has long contributed to a misrepresentation of people in the Global South, the original subjects of anthropological research, as people living in timeless and ahistorical worlds where nothing changes. (See Fabian 1983 and Clifford and Marcus 1986.) For this reason, since turning a critical eye to these concerns in the mid-1980s, anthropologists often use the past tense in their writing to make it evident that they are analyzing how their subjects understood and experienced their lives at a particular moment in time. However, I have chosen to write this book in the present tense because the people and experiences I analyze in these pages are ongoing, even as I write in mid-2011. As I type these words, at 10:15 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in May 2011, I am quite certain that Carl, Ed, and Rosa are at work less than a mile from where I am sitting (in fact it’s their coffee break right now).

17. Terkel 1997 [1975]. A good introduction to the anthropology of work is Gamst 1995.

18. Cf. Savishinsky 2002 and Weiss 2005.

19. See Johnson 2009 for a discussion of rising senior unemployment in the late 2000s.

20. Gavin 2009; Pugh 2009.

21. Fleck 2008.

22. Abelson 2006.

23. Vita Needle may well be the most publicized case of a manufacturing facility staffed by older workers, but it is not the only one. In the early 2000s, U.S. media outfits reported on the Ohio cosmetics company Bonne Bell’s policy of employing older workers (Carrie 2001; Eisenberg 2002; cf. http://www.clevelandseniors.com/for ever/bbell.htm), though a call to the company in 2010 revealed that the policy had been discontinued. Morris and Caro (1995, 33) report on a program in Michigan “that supports an automobile manufacturer who hires older people to finish wooden dash- boards for luxury cars.” There are numerous cases of companies targeting older workers for service jobs, such as in the case of Walmart and CVS.

24. NGA 2008. Cf. McKinsey Global Institute 2008.

25. Hamilton 2008.

26. Ekerdt 1986, 239.

27. I use this term “eldersourcing” to invoke discussions about outsourcing. I have not seen other scholarly uses of the term, and my searches find it used only by a business advisory company. See http://www.darandcompany.com/Aging_In_Place_-050809.html, which explains in a 2009 post that “[c]ompanies are also beginning to view Successful Aging as a source of labor supply (in addition to being a market). Within this demographic are millions of people who have the skills, knowledge, experience and motivation that make them an alternative pool of labor, outside the full-time employee base. Indeed, these willing and competent people are an alternative to outsourcing: eldersourcing.”

28. According to 2007–9 data, the percentage of older adults in Needham is 15.8 per- cent compared with 13.1 percent in Massachusetts. (Needham data from United States Census Bureau 2009b; Massachusetts data from United States Census Bureau 2010.)

29. In claiming that a particular case can offer more generalizable insights, I follow sociologist Michael Burawoy’s arguments in favor of the “extended case method.” Burawoy argues that we can use the specificity of one case as a vehicle for comprehending larger social and economic forces (1991, 278).

30. Pew Social Trends Staff 2009.

Excerpted from Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory, by Caitrin Lynch

 Copyright 2012 by Cornell University Press.  Used by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.