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The silver-collar economy

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The demand for older workers is global. If anything, the pressure on employers to welcome elderly workers appears greater in Japan and much of Europe than it is in the US. The reason is that, while the US has some population growth contributing to its labor force, those other advanced nations are plateauing or facing outright demographic decline because of low immigration and fertility rates. That translates into fewer working-age people to support each prospective retiree.

For now, Europe has a culture and policy climate that encourages retirement and discourages working past 65. But that appears to be changing. "We've seen a lot of countries in Europe, particularly Germany, starting to address these problems by raising the retirement age," says Richard Johnson, an expert on aging and retirement at the Urban Institute in Washington.

The Australian government, seeing what it perceived as a mismatch between older workers' value and employer demand, recently launched a program offering $1,000 bonuses for each worker over 50 that employers hire.

Amid pizza shops and hair salons near the town square of Needham, the entrance to the Vita Needle Company is almost invisible. It's a bit like the entrance to the railway Platform 9-3/4 in the fictional realm of Harry Potter. You'll probably see this door only if you're looking for it.

Yet there it is. Up a staircase, the little factory occupies a wooden-planked space that was once a dance hall. Where "factory" conjures up images of forklifts, assembly lines, or robotic machines, this is different: a modest-sized shop floor where people sit at workbenches, exchanging bits of casual conversation as they use hand-operated tools such as stamping machines, drills, and wire brushes.

Employees include former salesmen, postal workers, or waitresses (as Finnegan was) among them. Up the stairs come 10-foot-long boxes filled with thin steel tubing. Down the stairs go customized needles for industrial and medical uses.

"We make some of the finest needles in the world here," says Mr. Hartman, whose family founded the firm here in 1932.

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