Millennials postpone death planning, pressuring insurers

Bloomberg NewsJune 8, 2014 

— Usman Ahmad is in no hurry to insure his own life, even after buying protection for his gray BMW and the house he bought in Toronto.

“I’m not planning on dying any time soon, so it’s a waste of money,” the 30-year-old said while eating lunch and browsing his smartphone at a food court in Toronto’s financial district, where he works for Gemini Aviation as a manager. “When I get married and have kids, maybe then I’ll consider it.”

Young adults who wait longer to start families are also putting off death planning, pushing insurers such as MetLife in the U.S. and Canada’s Manulife Financial to expand in regions such as Asia or Latin America and push into asset management or retirement planning. Companies also are investing in technology and advertising, hiring younger agents and expanding at workplaces to help stem the sales decline.

“The industry needs to learn how to better communicate with that generation,” Bob Kerzner, chief executive officer of insurance trade group Limra, said recently. “Frankly, it’s a lot easier to market an iPod or a consumer good on the Internet.”

Individual life insurance sales in the U.S. slipped 45 percent to 9.7 million policies in 2012 from a high of 17.7 million in 1983, according to Limra. About 18 percent of people age 18 to 29 had life insurance, compared with 43 percent for baby boomers, Limra data from 2010 show. The coverage is optional, unlike auto coverage, which is mandatory for drivers.

Insurers have been investing at a “much heavier pace” in the past 12 to 18 months to reach the population of more than 80 million in the U.S. who were born from 1980 to 2000 and comprise a group known as millennials, Kerzner said. One of those firms is Toronto-based Sun Life Financial, which said about one-third of its agents are younger than 40 and is expanding its presence at colleges and on the Internet while seeking to reach young adults at their workplaces.

“It’s an extremely important market,” said Kevin Dougherty, president of Sun Life’s Canadian operations. “It becomes more important as these individuals go through various life stages and need financial security.”

While people can often lock in lower annual rates by starting coverage as young adults, potential customers are taking longer to reach the milestones that typically trigger the purchase of a policy. The median age for U.S. women at their first marriage was almost 27 in 2010, compared with less than 21 in 1950, U.S. census data show. For men, the figure climbed to more than 28 from 24.

“Their lives are just a bit more on hold, which means they’re not in an insurance mindset,” said Neil Howe, co-author of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation.” “On the other hand, they are long-term planners.”

MetLife, the largest U.S. life insurer, announced a plan in 2012 to focus on growth overseas while cutting expenses in its home market amid shifting consumer preferences.

“The agent channel will always be with us, but consumers are looking for new ways to purchase financial products and especially life insurance,” William Wheeler, the New York-based company’s president of the Americas, said at the time. “They are looking for it at the work site, they are looking for it online, they are looking for it in other nontraditional ways.”

Later that year, the company announced a plan to sell prepaid policies at Walmart locations in a pitch to less-affluent shoppers. Consumers were offered as much as $25,000 of coverage for one year in packages adorned with the image of the comic-strip beagle Snoopy.

Manulife, which is expanding in third-party asset management and seeking growth in nations such as Myanmar and Indonesia, is adapting to the life insurance slump by lowering some prices and adding new products, Chairman Richard DeWolfe said at the company’s annual general meeting May 1.

New pricing strategies and social media approaches aren’t enough to reverse the decline, said Jeff Fromm, executive vice president at Barkley, the employee-owned advertising agency in Kansas City, Missouri, and co-author of “Marketing to Millennials: Reach the Largest and Most Influential Generation of Consumers Ever.”

Companies should consider customers who may be vegans, regularly exercise and are open to wearing technology that tracks their lifestyle, aiding in pricing, Fromm said.

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