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Life Health > Life Insurance

Ruminations Of An Octogenarian

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In June of this year I will celebrate my 80th birthday and as my son once observed, move from the “youth of old age” into old age. I cant say that I am excited about that, but it is certainly better than the alternative. It also seems an appropriate time to reflect upon the past and perhaps put some of our contemporary happenings into proper context. It is also best to do such things while ones memory is still intact.

For most of my life, many, if not the majority of people, in the world have been ruled by tyrants. Hitler and Mussolini ravaged Western Europe while Japanese imperialists raped and pillaged much of Asia. Stalin and Mao spread communism in a reign of terror in both Europe and Asia while minor despots in Africa, Asia and part of the Americas contributed their butchery to an overall loss of life of more than 100 million people.

The pivotal force in stemming this assault on humanity has been the United States, working on political, diplomatic and military fronts around the globe.

Given the price we have paid over the years in human lives and physical resources, one might ask whether it has been worth it. It seems to me that the answer is obviouslike the alternative to growing old, the alternative to opposing tyranny is also a certain finality.

But along the way some good things happened insofar as our business is concerned. Those of us who entered military service during World War II were presented with an unusual opportunitythe availability of GI insurance at bargain rates. Most of us, prior to entering the service, were covered by small industrial insurance policies and the prospect of being insured for $10,000 was mind-stretching.

When the 13 million under arms during the war became civilians again, their idea of an adequate insurance program permanently had been altered. Not long after the end of WWII, every insurance company offered a $10,000 special policy to meet the new demand, and sales records were broken year after year and the mind-stretching continues to this date.

The Great Depression of the 1930s also made an indelible impression upon me, and I am sure all my fellow octogenarians as well. Some 25% of the official workforce was unemployed and every city had its breadlines and hobo camps. It is estimated that the rate of unemployment actually was much higher than 25% because when WWII started, millions of workers came off of farms to work in defense jobs or the military and yet, farm production went up.

With the exception of government workers, retirement was not likely for most people. When grandpa could no longer work, he ended his days feeding chickens on the family farm.

But this was not practical for an increasingly urbanized society and so Social Security was born. For the first time the average person had a “floor of protection” upon which to build a retirement plan. Despite early misgivings this proved to be a boon to our business in that it injected hope into peoples thinking about retirement, whereas before there had only been despair.

However, over the years, Social Security has evoked criticism and political rhetoric that has kept us on edge for most of its history. I do not believe I can remember a time when it was not being assailed by one or both of our major political parties. Predictions of its bankruptcy have been rife for decades, but somehow we always manage to save it.

I am reminded of an incident that occurred about 20 years ago. Jim Douds, general counsel of the National Association of Life Underwriters at the time, and I were having lunch at the Lawyers Club in Washington, D.C., when we encountered NALUs former general counsel, Carl Dunaway. Carl was celebrating his 65th birthday and with a chuckle he said that he could now start drawing Social Securitysomething he had predicted would never happen in his many appearances before Congress on behalf of NALU. My experience helps me to cling to the notion that our institutions are stronger than they are so often portrayed.

Perhaps the most constructive effort to come out of the Depression and WWII was the GI Bill of Rights. A college education was but a dim hope for most of us in the 1930s and early 40s. The GI bill subsidized academic and technical training and was probably the finest investment in our nations future that was ever made, and no doubt was a major factor in preventing a slide back into a depression after the war.

The GI bill spawned interest in all sorts of educational opportunities that went far beyond the subsidies offered in the bill. Companies quickly saw the advantages of a better trained and educated workforce and offered educational opportunities to their people.

The record will show that while the CLU movement had been around almost 20 years, there were not many practicing CLUs. However, the new interest in education changed that, and the CLU movement and the whole idea of professionalism surged in popularity.

The Life Underwriter Training Council, which was born in 1947, also became an integral part of this new emphasis.

One of the advantages (perhaps the only one) of being an octogenarian is the ability to bring to bear a significant amount of observed history into dialogue regarding contemporary issues. So often when the purveyors of doom and gloom get on their soapbox, they are playing a song we have heard many times before.

How many times have we heard that the life insurance agent was expendable, either entirely or in large measure? In the 1960s we were going to be replaced by plastic (credit cards). In the 70s direct response solicitations were slated to do us in, and in the 80s financial planners would replace us. And, in the 90s the Internet would take over.

It is worth noting that in 1956 when I entered the business, one could qualify for his companys top production club with about $12,000 in first-year commission. Today that would require more than $200,000.

Fact is, our nation, our business and our profession have all faced enormous challenges during my lifetime and they have all been met with resolve and determination. I am so proud to have been an ever-so-tiny part of what some have called “the greatest generation.”

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, February 6, 2004. Copyright 2004 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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