New Book by Olin Professor Sees Lessons in Boston-area Company that Prefers Hiring Older Workers

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In an era when many manufacturing companies engage in “outsourcing” to factories overseas, Vita Needle, a maker of high quality stainless steel needles and fabricated parts, has thrived through “eldersourcing,” the practice of hiring older workers.

Caitrin Lynch, associate professor of anthropology at Olin College of Engineering

Retirees and older adults . . . simply want to continue to live and to be part of life, where life itself means community engagement and contribution.

A new book by Caitrin Lynch, associate professor of anthropology at Olin College of Engineering, examines a Boston-area company that seeks out older workers and finds in its unusual business model important lessons for a society in which workers increasingly find themselves employed beyond traditional retirement age.

The book, Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory (2012, Cornell University Press) is the result of five years Lynch spent studying Vita Needle Company of Needham, Mass. As part of her research, she even joined the production line to immerse herself more fully in the firm’s workplace culture.

In an era when many manufacturing companies engage in “outsourcing” to factories overseas, Vita Needle, a maker of high quality stainless steel needles and fabricated parts, has thrived through “eldersourcing,” the practice of hiring older workers. At the same time the company has made a commitment to elder-friendly policies, like flexible hours and part-time work, that have made it a haven for retirees who wish not only to earn a paycheck, but also to find a sense of purpose in their work.

“Retirees and older adults . . . simply want to continue to live and to be part of life, where life itself means community engagement and contribution,” writes Lynch, who notes the strong connection between work and personal identity in American society. “Vita Needle is a place of life for people who may otherwise be written off as nonproductive, useless, invisible and no longer human.”

From spring 2006 to spring 2011, Lynch conducted in-depth ethnographic research that involved extensive interviews with the owners, managers and employees of the family-owned business, which was established in 1932 and operates out of a former dance hall in downtown Needham. During the summer of 2008, Lynch actually worked on the production line, packing needles side by side with employees, the oldest of whom was 96 then and who today, at 100, is still working 30 hours per week. The median age of the workers at the company is 74.

The outcome of her research and observations is an intimate portrait of the people who work at Vita Needle, a detailed explanation of the company’s hiring practices and a thoughtful analysis of how the employees’ experiences could offer a model for a new vision of work and aging built around older workers’ needs.

“At Vita, the employer’s perception of what the employees themselves want and get from the work is actually at the forefront of the hiring process and the design of the work process, so that workers’ choice, freedom and desire for flexibility are built into the workplace,” observes Lynch.

Lynch is careful to point out that not all aspects of the Vita Needle experience are replicable, or even desirable. The workers labor for low wages in an un-air conditioned work space, and they are not eligible for benefits—the company depends on the fact that many employees receive social security and Medicare to help make its business model work. Still, the sense of community and purpose employees gain appears to make working there a worthwhile trade off.

Lynch writes that at Vita Needle, “to work is to be alive, and to be noticed by peers, bosses, anthropologists, media producers and consumers alike.”

A graduate of the University of Chicago and Bates College, Lynch teaches anthropology in the arts, humanities, and social sciences program at Olin College. She is the author of a previous book, Juki Girls, Good Girls: Gender and Cultural Politics in Sri Lanka's Global Garment Industry. Her research and teaching interests include examining the dynamics of work and cultural values, with a focus on aging and gender, as well as the cultural and economic dimensions of manufacturing.

More information on the Retirement on the Line is available at: retirementontheline.net.

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