Work and Relevance

I am overwhelmed by the number of hits produced by a Google search for retirement!  And almost all of the first hits concern finances!  Clearly for most of us financing this stage of life is a great fear.  But so is irrelevance.

From this search one site in particular stands out, Fred Koller’s blog for the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-koller/retirement-age_b_1435469.html )Koller writes  about “eldersourcing”  and a recently published anthropological study of Vita Needle, a Massachusetts-based industry that hires workers over age 65, provides no insurance, pays a bit over minimum wage, promises no lay-offs, and accommodates, even invites, part-time employment.  Caitrin Lynch, author of Retirement on the Line: Age, Work, and Value in an American Factory  (ILR Press, 2012), the study Koller cites, says that people just want to “matter” after they retire and Vita Needle offers them this sort of affirmation.

But affirmation through assembly line work with a little pin-money to supplement social security payments?  So reminiscent of the arguments made to pay sweatshop wages to young female workers in the early twentieth century.  After all, they were merely biding time til marriage.  The elderly, in this calculation, are merely biding time til death.  And, as Koller points out, Vita Needle is not a humanitarian non-profit created to help seniors.  It is an enterprise in a capitalist system, looking for the cheapest labor to produce the greatest profit.

Vita Needle brings home the decisions of some of my retired colleagues, the ones who continue to teach – a course here or there for the same wages paid adjuncts or graduate students trying to make ends meet as they try to start careers.  We acknowledge, though often only superficially, the exploitation of those young scholars.  But I’ve yet to hear similar acknowledgement of post-retirement exploitation in the academy.

And in what sense does that status promote relevance?  Are those at my end of the spectrum satisfied with the “relevance” they presumably receive through the “course-a-semester” track?  I think of the ways adjuncts at both ends of the age spectrum are excluded from department concerns.  These concerns leave me to ask if teaching alone is what gives my job meaning?  What is it I will lose at retirement and how will I find a replacement?

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