Review: Lynch – Retirement on the Line (2012) and My Name is Julius: a film about growing old, staying young, and confronting a lifetime of hearing loss (2011)

Lynch, Caitrin. My name is Julius: a film about growing old, staying young, and confronting a lifetime of hearing loss. That’s My Film! 2011. OCLC  785724214 17 min. 36 sec. DVD.
Lynch, Caitrin. Retirement on the line : age, work, and value in an American factory. ILR Press. 2012. ISBN 0801477786, 228 p, $21.95 (paperback)
The current economic crisis has brought the plight of older adults in the United States workforce into sharp focus. Many older adults would like to retire but cannot afford to do so due to uncertainty in the stock market, while currently unemployed older adults face age discrimination in their search for employment.  At the same time, many retired older adults face a crisis of meaning in their lives. If identity and worth are defined by what job title and productivity, what is a non-producing older adult worth? And if people stay connected socially through the workplace, how do the retired combat a sense of isolation and a lack of belonging?

My Name is Julius, a seventeen-minute documentary film produced by anthropologist Caitrin Lynch, examines the themes of loneliness, isolation, and connectedness. In this film, Julius Barthoff, pictured at 99 and 100 years of age, speaks movingly about his attempts to stay connected in the world. Having experienced hearing loss at a young age, he has always had to struggle to stay connected due to his disability but more so now with age. As he sits in conversation with other older adults, Julius has trouble following the conversation and knows he is not hearing everything. He does not isolate himself but strives as much as possible to stay connected, to help others and to still make the rest of his life “happy”. Not interested in material wealth, he does a good deed daily by delivering newspapers to other residents of  his senior housing complex.

Watching the film, the parallel between the disabled at any age and the position of older adults in American society become apparent. While those who experience a disability can feel isolated and apart at any age, previously well-connected older adults may start to experience isolation and loneliness as they retire, move into age-segregated housing, and lose contact with younger generations. The film can be useful in demonstrating these concepts to a class in gerontology, cross-cultural gerontology, or aging.

Turning to how older adults may capture that sense of belonging and connectedness in the workplace, Caitrin Lynch’s aptly entitled ethnography, Retirement on the Line, is a study of the Vita Needle factory in Needman, Massachusetts. A light manufacturing plant making needles for a variety of purposes, the median age of the workers was 74 and the oldest worker was aged 99 in 2011. Lynch spent five years studying Vita Needle using interviews with workers and management as well as actually working on the factory floor herself for one summer.

The book is divided into two parts. In Part One, Lynch focuses on how the company is structured and how life operates inside the factory. The owners of this company, which has received much media attention, focus on hiring part-time workers, mostly older adults, who will forgo high wages and benefits in exchange for supplemental income, flexible hours, job accommodations, and a no-layoff policy. The owner, Fred Hartman, claims that older adults are not only reliable, dedicated, and dependable, but also most likely to work part-time to supplement their other income. Older adults also qualify for programs such as Medicare , so they don’t need employer health benefits. The work does not require much physical strength and accommodations are made for those workers who require help lifting and moving, as well as allowing workers to rotate between jobs to avoid boredom and loss of productivity. Further, hiring managers look for those whose motive to work is to escape monotony, inactivity, or loneliness at home and weed out those who want higher wages or only want to do specific kinds of jobs. For Vita Needle, this results in a homogenous (yet economically diverse) workforce of older local, white, mostly non-immigrant, Christian (Catholic or Protestant) workers. Some need the supplemental income to get by on retirement income, while others view it as “mad money”. Yet Lynch finds this to be a “win-win” situation for all. She convincingly documents the sense of family, belonging, productivity, and meaning that the older workers derive from their employment at Vita Needle. They no longer feel “useless”, isolated, disconnected, and non-productive. The flexibility at Vita Needle in hours, work load, and attendance allows the accommodations needed for older workers.

Yet the owners claim that their intention is not just to benefit seniors but assert that this model makes good economic and business sense. Lynch documents how this model allows them to get dedicated workers without paying high wages and benefits, while attracting customers with their “moral high ground” [and getting kudos for the non-diversity of their workforce].  The workers do not appear to resent the idea that their labor makes the company profitable and recognize the inherent reciprocity, as demonstrated by one of their stock phrases, “making money for Fred”, which also results in a “Christmas” bonus for them.  Lynch characterizes these practices as “elder sourcing”, an alternative to outsourcing similar work out of the country and with the benefit of retaining business in the United States economy. While Lynch makes a strong case for the benefits these workers and the owners find in such a “homogenous” and non-diverse work environment, she does not really address the potentially discriminatory and possibly illegal nature of such hiring practices nor other problematic practices, such as the “men’s lunch corner”.

In Part Two, she documents and analyzes the media attention, which includes her own presence, that the company receives and how this affects the workers.  Interviews, filming for documentaries, and TV coverage, including a TV discussion where Lynch herself appeared with the owner and one worker, were frequent events. For example, stories about the company became part of political discussions about the meaning of retirement in France. These types of stories were followed by letters and e-mails from people in Europe (posted in the workplace) who reinterpreted their own status as retired adults after seeing the coverage of Vita Needle and wished for a similar chance to work. Lynch felt that the Vita Needle workers learned to interpret the meaning of their own lives by “consuming” media coverage of the company. For example, they expressed appreciation for their situation compared with the situation they imagined in Europe based on the letters. Yet, cooperation with the various media, such as news crews and documentary makers, as well as with Lynch herself, varied. Some felt participation was “part of the job”, while others used fake names for media photos or altered their identifying information. Some chose never to talk to Lynch or declined to participate in various media events or participated selectively. Lynch attributes this to a need to exhibit “agency” in their own lives, a desire not to be treated as a research subject, and a need for “balance” between work, media, and everyday life. Lynch does point out that the media rarely shows any kind of “conflict” or “debate” at Vita Needle, while noting that she did receive some criticism or complaints about both management practices and co-workers. Yet these are not well-documented compared to the overwhelming positive feedback documented. While Lynch herself used pseudonyms for most of the workers she interviewed or quoted, obviously management and co-workers could probably identify each worker. We are not left with a clear understanding of whether or not Lynch felt free to print criticisms, if workers requested she not print them, or if those with a less than positive viewpoint simply refused to be interviewed. While understandable in view of the location and lack of anonymity of the company, it leaves the book somewhat one-sided in its positive treatment of the workplace.

Lynch never resolves the question of whether or not this workplace model is exploitative of older adults or not and if it should be adopted more broadly. Instead, she asks us to think differently about the meaning of work in people’s lives, especially older adults, while pondering whether or not one group of workers can trade economic for non-economic benefits and how that affects the rights of all workers. This lack of a wider social context makes the book less suitable to discussions about how to get and keep older adults employed in today’s economic circumstances. As ethnography, this book would be suitable for use in a gerontology, cross-cultural gerontology, or aging studies course to illustrate attitudes about work and meaning for older adults.

Anne Velardi
University of Alaska Anchorage
PhD Candidate

This book review was published in Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34(2): 214-216

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