working through retirement
What are your plans for retirement? Do you hope that your retirement investments will comfortably support you and your loved ones in a life of leisure? Or, do you hope to work as long as possible – work until you drop! As life expectancies expand and the cost of living increases, some will work as long as possible, either out of necessity or choice. Increasingly, workplaces seek to retain such employees, as demonstrated by efforts to redesign work processes at Germany’s BMW plants for aging workers.
Speaking of post-graduate school ethnography, cultural anthropologist Caitrin Lynch has just published Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory (2012, ILR Press), which sheds insight into the experiences of an aging workforce. This intriguing ethnography follows the workers powering the family-owned factory Vita Needle in Needham, Massachusetts. Vita Needle manufactures a wide variety of needles, including those used for medical care and industrial applications. Its workers range in age from teens through their late nineties; some have advanced degrees. Some work for the sheer pleasure or to stay active per their doctors’ orders; others work because their retirement savings were insufficient to cover expenses.
Besides life-long employees, workers include a smorgasbord of past professions, including engineering, physics, architecture, education, and accounting. The company’s owner feels that these workers are especially dependable and devoted. They are less costly since Medicare serves as their medical insurance. Furthermore, he opines that this invested and experienced workforce offers a competitive advantage over other companies.
Most of Vita’s employees work part-time. Lynch’s interviews reveal that they enjoy the flexible work schedule, camaraderie, and meaning-making. Lynch’s participant-observations describes the banana-time like games that workers play to stay alert and engaged in repetitious tasks – the most sleep-inducing machine work is rotated among employees in one hour shifts. Some workers will cover for one another; a few will gently urge laggards to resume work. Lynch also notes the benefits of violating Taylorist practices of efficiently rearranging workspace. Having to walk to get tools or materials in the tight factory space keeps workers active and connected with co-workers. In addition, Lynch devotes a chapter to employees’ responses to the flurry of media attention, as well as an analysis of how domestic and foreign media have depicted the firm. In all, this book is an informative addition to courses on the workplace, organizations, and work and occupations.