In the time I've been a union biz rep, I've heard life narratives similar to the ones below. I've just never heard them in one two-hour span...
Story One: Last week I had lunch with an animation veteran I've known a long time. He's worked at one studio for the bulk of his career, and he's one of the chosen few. Long term employment, good health, regular paychecks. He wondered how much longer he should work, I said "until it starts boring you." Then he had a question for me:
"Steve? I got a letter and forms from the Motion Picture Industry Pension Plan. They say they want me to start taking monthly retirement payments. I hadn't given it much thought but I guess I should. Oh. They also have this thing called the IAP." What's IAP?"
I explained that IAP stood for Individual Account Plan, that it was a lump sum amount earning interest as we spoke, and that in his case the lump sum was probably substantial.
He quoted me the figure. I made a mental note: Substantial.
I told him he'd get the monthly payout in addition to the big lump sum. This was news to him, but he was (big surprise here) pleasantly astonished. I told him he should apply for the monthly pension -- called a "Defined Benefit" -- as quickly as possible, since he was the age where he could keep working and draw the pension, so there was no point in waiting around. He said he would.
Now. The gentleman above has had a number of blessings, career-wise. He's been in the right place at the right time (a big plus), he's been skilled at what he does (another plus), and he's very pleasant (a helpful character trait when you're seeking long-term employment.)
But I won't b.s. you. Not everybody gets the breaks, not everyone has a skill set that's continually marketable (with a personality to match), not everyone makes the right choice when there's a crucial fork in life's road.
Yet I kind of believe the champion golfer Sam Snead, who once remarked after a major tournament win: "Yeah, I had some luck out there today. But I've found out that the harder I work, the luckier I get."
Which leads in to Story Two:
A couple of hours after the lunch, I took a phone call from an artist who's had about the same length career as my dining companion. He's worked as an animator, board artist, t.v. animation director, you name it. Worked at a plethora of studios, both here and abroad. He called up wanting to know where work was, as he's waiting for payment for some freelance work and the little company who's supposed to cut the check is... slow. And he needs the money.
"Social Security, it doesn't go very far. I got expenses and I got to keep working. You work a long time and you end up nobody. Nobody knows who you are."
I made consoling noises about the crappiness of gray-listing and the unkindness of thirty-year-old execs, how he deserves better and how tough the industry is. Etc., etc. During the course of the conversation I found out that he'd worked non-union here as well as out of the country, all without benefit of any pensions. So his monthly payout from the industry pension plan is minimal.
I didn't have any bright ideas about finding work, since I didn't know any studio that was hiring just then. When we finished and hung up, he probably thought it had been a waste of time talking to me. I wouldn't have blamed him if he'd decided I was as crappy and useless as the animation industry.
But I learned a lot. Again. The animation business -- like most of the entertainment biz -- is cold, uncaring, and often brutal. One year it showers you with money and tells you what a fabulous talent you are; the next year it doesn't return phone calls. And you're on unemployment wondering what the hell happened.
I know it's not like this for everybody. Sometimes God smiles down while you're still in the womb and gifts you with monster talent. And sometimes the career ball bounces just right and you are standing in the proper doorway in front of the key supervisor at the correct time. And sometimes you work your tail off 24/7 and expand your career universe that way.
If you've got huge amounts of talent or luck, maybe you don't need a frenetic work ethic. Conversely, a big passion for work could mean you don't need as much of the other two things.
But face it. Most human beings don't end up precisely where they expected. Or wanted. Excrement, as the wise man says, occurs. Which is why it's crucial to save and participate in pension plans, mandatory to push your learning curve upward at every point of your career, and crucial to run your professional life like you're in the regional finals of a popularity contest.
I mean, since you're here on earth breathing anyway, you might as well maximize your prospects.