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.

Written by katherinechen

July 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Posted in books, culture

Tagged with ,

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention; I hope and expect we’ll have more and better research on retirement and older people as the baby boom generation ages (and a corresponding bump in research on young people born in the Southern Hemisphere, as they have their own demographic shift to understand). Let’s imagine an ethnography of, or maybe just interviews with, sociologists over 65 years of age. What do we think they would say were the most important transformations of work within their lifetimes? How would they answer your question about retirement, and how might this answer have changed in the last 5 years? I think this generation of sociologists–many of whom were drawn into the field during the foment of the 1960s–is an interesting one, and I think a generation with a lot of internal heterogeneity. Wondering what y’all think…


    Jenn Lena

    July 27, 2012 at 1:54 pm

  2. Working through retirement, of course, is something academics are very familiar with. There are lots of good reasons that academics like to stay active in their fields, but one of them has to be that it’s no longer financially feasible for most professors to retire early. I imagine more professors are staying on the job not because they want to but because they have to due to the decline of retirement benefits. Does anyone know if there’s any truth to this?


    brayden king

    July 27, 2012 at 2:59 pm

  3. Fascinating post, thanks.

    Brayden, very interesting question. I don’t have a good answer, but I think voluntary retirement plans at universities would be a good place to look. The anecdotal evidence in this article suggests more interest in these programs than was originally expected, so perhaps this is a case against your imagining. But on the other hand, perhaps there is just a lot of heterogeneity (many stay on for the reasons you say, but many are simply burned out and jump at these retirement plans). I’d love to see a good research paper on this topic….


    Robert C.

    July 30, 2012 at 12:56 am

  4. A quick online search reveals links such as these:
    As Robert C. comments, people probably experience many pushes and pulls depending on their situation. For example, with the economic downturn, American professors may continue working to support adult children – under the Affordable Care Act, children who are 26 years old or younger can be covered by a parent’s workplace health insurance.



    August 1, 2012 at 3:35 am

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