[Excerpt] 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.
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. 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.