Making Needles in Retirement: What’s the Point?

Five Lessons from Retirement on the Line

In an era when people live longer and want (or need) to work past the traditional retirement age, the Vita Needle Company of Needham, Massachusetts, provides inspiration and important 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. As part of its unusual business model, the company seeks out older workers; the median age of the employees is seventy-four.

Anthropologist Caitrin Lynch, author of Retirement on the Line, summarizes here the Top Five Lessons we learn from Vita Needle.

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. It is definitely true that 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 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, 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 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 andalso 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 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’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 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 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. Membershiprefers 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’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’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.