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Cover Story

The silver-collar economy

More companies are hiring people 65 and older because they believe they are reliable and productive, while the seniors themselves need – and want – to work. But is the trend squeezing out young people?

By Staff writer / September 2, 2012

Rosa Finnegan works on a needle at Vita Needle in Needham, Mass. This is the cover story in the Sept. 3 edition of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor

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Needham, Mass.

Rosa Finnegan has plenty of similarities with other wage-earning Americans. She hitches rides in with a co-worker, likes to joke around with colleagues, and feels very grateful to have her job. At the end of the day, she's ready to sink into a cushy chair at home.

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But Mrs. Finnegan is also a trailblazer. She offers striking proof that employment and productive activity need not end when the so-called retirement years arrive.

Let's put it this way: Where many people now nearing retirement can recall Sputnik, civil rights protests, or the pitching wizardry of Sandy Koufax, she mentions memories of gas-lit streets, the spread of telephones, and working at a rubber plant during World War II.

Having passed her 100th birthday this year, Finnegan is still working at a needle factory in this Boston suburb, helping to make and package the stainless-steel products in custom batches.

Yes, she walks a bit more slowly now than many of her co-workers. But Rosa, as they all call her, still has willing hands and a nimble mind. And she has no desire to leave her job.

"I'd rather be here than almost anywhere," she says. "You feel like you're still a worthwhile person, even though you're old – [you're] not sitting in a rocking chair."

What's notable is not just that she wants to keep working, but also that she's found an employer who values her presence. When Rosa notched her 100th birthday earlier this year, Fred Hartman, chief executive of the family-run business called Vita Needle Company, celebrated with a cake during a morning break time – and then let her keep right on working.

In fact, at a time when the manufacturing of many goods has shifted from the United States to overseas, Vita Needle has survived partly because it has welcomed older workers. The median age of its 48 employees is 73. These workers have proved to be both reliable and low cost. Staff turnover has decreased, and the company believes the older workers help turn out a better product, offsetting the lower-wage advantages that some overseas firms enjoy.

Vita Needle is an extreme example, but it's just one of many employers who in varying ways have been learning to value workers on the mature end of the spectrum.

The rise of the older worker is cast sometimes as a problematic feature of the current job climate: a "gray ceiling" in which the lingering of older employees leaves scant opportunity for younger workers to be hired, developed, and promoted. The challenge is genuine, as recent headlines about a "lost" generation of youth imply.

But take a larger and longer view, and the picture may be much more positive. There's the potential for ample demand for younger and older workers alike. Many seniors, for their part, are engaged in a righteous rebellion against artificial limits – against the notion that hitting 65 means one's contributions to society are largely in the rearview mirror.

The trend, while not new, is still in its early stages and promises to have long-term significance. Life spans have been expanding, and attitudes about how to live during the so-called golden years have been evolving toward less emphasis on leisure and more on usefulness.

It's also a story about the financial imperative facing individuals and nations, which is intertwined with the global economy's current aura of debt crisis. Fiscal pressures in nations like Japan, Italy, and the US are linked closely to the demographics of retirement, with a wave of age 60-plus people who will either have to support themselves or be supported by taxpayers.

The rise of the gray workforce shouldn't be exaggerated. The concept of retirement isn't being phased out entirely. But elderly people are increasingly taking on jobs, either in the form of part-time employment, seasonal work, or brief encore careers.

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