On February 8th, National Underwriter reported on a retirement decisions hearing organized by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. What the committee found was that financial literacy in this country was dismal.

The residue left by the lingering effects of the Great Recession has not just made austerity fashionable again; it has opened up the eyes and perked up the ears of people all across the country and got them paying attention to their long-term personal financial plans.

There is a huge opportunity to be capitalized upon for financial advisors and life insurers alike. The work force of Generation Y has been inundated with tales of financial ruin; they have seen their parents and co workers delay retirement due to decimated 401(k) and IRA plans; they are watching pension battles with public employees being played out on the news every night, and they are constantly being reminded that by the time they retire, Social Security will be insolvent.

Prior to the events of the last couple of years, save for a few accounting and finance majors, retirement planning for workers age 18 to 33 was something that very rarely went beyond the average 401(k) plan and life insurance policy. Even now, as the Senate committee found, public understanding of these programs is rudimentary at best. Yet there is a pervading feeling among workers from Gen Y that they need to supplement their existing retirement saving plans, if they have them. And if they do not, they need to enroll.

Industry professionals must learn how to market, educate, and speak to this generation if they are going to be successful down the road. Their ears are open. The topic is not jejune to them anymore. They know that they have to begin planning, but they need to be educated on how to plan and what financial instruments to use. According to a recent study by LIMRA, Gen Y still prefers to purchase their policies face-to-face with a professional, with 56% of Gen Y using that method for the last life insurance policy purchased. This fact should ease worries among professionals that this generation is immune to the traditional way of doing business. When asked how they would like purchase individual life insurance in the future, 52% of Gen Y surveyed said they would still like to purchase it face-to-face. A reason for this seemingly strange phenomena should encourage financial professionals; although Gen Y does most of its socializing with the use of new technology, when they are making important financial decisions, the majority feel that it is important to have an actual interface with an individual.

Traditionally, especially when speaking to the younger end of the work force, financial professionals would have to explain why their product was important. Vast amounts of energy were spent on persuading a group of mostly apathetic young workers that it would behoove them to begin planning for retirement now (something 30 or 40 years down the road was not on the forefront of young workers’minds). They would just as easily use the money that could be invested into retirement planning to furnish their studio apartments or take their significant others out to dinner a couple of extra nights a month.

The crucial nature of retirement planning does not have to be explained to them anymore. To use a hackneyed expression, they have been scared straight. The energy once exhausted on persuasion should now be channeled into financial education for this group. Gen Y has lost its temerity; it has realized that it is no longer financially invincible. Retirement is no longer some ghostly ship out on the horizon, it is a steam ship blowing its horn, coming closer and closer to the Gen Y work force every day they leave work.

Financial professionals cannot afford to let this newfound financial cognizance slip away. As things begin to stabilize, the organic interest in financial awareness will dry up. Life will go back to normal and the hard lessons learned will quickly be forgotten. The calamitous nature of the last few years has done half of the work for the industry; to miss the opportunity to enroll Gen Y would be an inexcusable and disastrous mistake, for both the interest of the Generation and the interest of the industry. Your priorities are aligned; make it happen!