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Piercing The Veil

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People have always been curious about the future, particularly as it affects them personally. Fortune tellers, palm readers, analysts and a host of other prognosticators have existed since the beginning of time because of this phenomenon.

As I have traveled about the country and at industry meetings, I am often asked, “where are we going?” or “what is the future of our business?” In responding to such queries, I have always employed a lesson I learned from Alvin Tofflers book, “Future Shock,” published more than 20 years ago.

Future Shock was probably one of the most widely misunderstood books of all time. Based upon the many quotes made by speakers following the books publication, one would easily conclude that the book was about predictions for the future. When many of the things cited in the book did not come to pass, such as the disposable wedding dress, and grandparents opting in favor of travel rather than raising their grandchildren, faith in the books contents began to fade.

However, the book was not intended to be predictive in the usual sense of the word, a point that Toffler made in the introduction to the book. Rather, he said clearly that he was not making predictions and that he would leave such things to the Oracles.

What he was trying to do was to show how events and people could “trigger” change and often do so in a dramatic way. For example, the rise in the divorce rate could trigger a move to cheaper, even disposable wedding gowns, or the two-breadwinner family could trigger bringing grandparents back in to the child-rearing business.

To be sure, both these events have brought change to our societyalthough not the particular ones Toffler cited as possibilities.

The important part in all this is that those who would try to “pierce the veil” and peer into the future should look for events that could trigger a change in the movement of history.

History never moves in a straight line–which is why extrapolating current trends can be so tricky. Dec. 7, 1941 was an event that triggered change throughout the world. It ushered in the atomic age and produced a stimulus to technology that changes lives every day.

The advent of television, while producing an enormous change in entertainment and news dissemination, has also brought serious challenges to our system of values.

The triggers that move history are not all dramaticbut even in subtle ways the effect can be profound. For instance, when retail businesses quit closing on Sunday, the seven-day shopping week was born. The flight to suburbia gave rise to regional shopping malls, thereby killing many downtown areas.

But now we have Sept. 11, 2001, which many believe has once again changed our world forever. The task now, as we peer into the future, will be to identify what, if any, changes in the way we do business these events will trigger.

Will we see a return to family values and religious institutions as we did in the years immediately after World War II? The return in popularity of the nuclear family could have a very positive impact upon the insurance business, so clearly, this needs to be carefully monitored.

The events of the past few weeks have revealed an economy that is far more vulnerable than anyone would have believed possible during the heady days of the 1990s. Will this affect buyers and sellers of financial products in future years? What will be the products of choiceguaranteed or non-guaranteed?

Logic, I believe, says that in unsettled times people like safety and guarantees. Will logic prevail, or will risk-taking continue unabated? What will be the trigger event that settles that question?

In our own business, I believe a trigger event of the past that set the current course of our business was the purchase of the securities firm Bache by Prudential. Now, one could argue, based upon the publicity this particular acquisition received, whether or not this was a wise purchase. But the important point is, it started a movement that has transformed an industry.

The extent of that transformation is evident in a series of ads being run by one of our leading insurers. In listing the resources this company has to offer, there is not one single mention of life insurance. Not even a hint.

Will the events of September 11 trigger a change in such a strategy? Good management, I believe, requires a search for the answer.

Almost any gathering of insurance people, when asked for their view as to what constitutes the major impact upon our business, will always answer “government.” But it is well to remember government is almost always reactive.

We are the creative and innovative sector of the marketplace. We create split dollar, top-heavy pensions, tax shelters and questionable corporate-owned life insurance products and government reacts with laws and regulations.

Therefore, in “,” insofar as our future is concerned, we must not only look to outside events that may prompt change. It is just as important to look internally at what we are doing and selling. We may be creating our own trigger events.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 12, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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