Today, I am writing this at home because I must attend a funeral for a neighbor (let’s call her Mary, although that is not really her name) later in the morning. She was a very nice old woman who grew tomatoes in her backyard and sold them at curbside during the summer. She banked the money to buy her grand-kids Christmas presents. She was a reliable customer for my daughter’s Girl Scout cookies and for my son’s Cub Scout’s popcorn drive. And for the last year or more, she was nowhere to be seen as she drifted in and out of the hospital, gravely ill, but always willing to accede to her husband’s desire to bring her home, because he simply could not bear to be without her. To say he is devastated is a gross understatement.

Mary’s family makes very little money, and the primary wage earner is her de facto son-in-law (let’s call him Bob) who I am friends with, and who is essentially supporting the entire family. The whole situation is a little messed up, as Mary’s son and daughter (whom Bob is involved with) are either earning minimum wage or not earning anything at all (as is also are Mary’s adult grandchildren), and it is up to Bob to make every decision, provide almost every dollar. In the end, it was Bob who had to make the call on removing Mary from life support, because her husband could not. I suspect this happens a lot more than I realize.

Mary was also uninsured, and as a result, Bob has has to pick up her funerary costs. At one point, he seethed to me that Mary’s kids have made demands on what kind of funeral Mary deserves but have so far made no effort to help pay for any of it. But at the same time, Bob’s anger is tinged with a sadness that Mary and her husband, in their later years, simply could not afford to insure themselves. I am not certain how common this scenario is, but you can see it coming a mile away: two elderly seniors living on fixed incomes for years without two spare nickels to rub together.

At the same time, I am reminded of those infamous LIMRA numbers from last year that pointed to the lowest rates of individual life insurance ownership since WWII (though more recently, those numbers have started to recover). The Great Recession has made it hard for a lot of people to keep their policies in force, and with some ominous rumblings that there might even be a double dip in the future, policy lapses might become an even bigger issue than they already are (especially as companies like Coventry and the rest of the life settlement industry appear to be on the rise once more, only too eager to capitalize on lapsed policies).

I had a conversation with an industry analyst last week as we discussed some possible story ideas we could develop together, and the concept of how the industry prices itself came up. So did the notion of a world without life agents whatsoever – where life insurance is commoditized to the point where an intermediary is unnecessary and where commissions are removed from the transaction altogether. In many ways, this seems like a natural evolution, even if it would spell disaster for the industry in the short term. After all, life insurers, and stock companies in particular, have largely given up on maintaining career or captive sales forces, and there are companies out there that have proven a direct sales strategy can work.

The reason why I bring this up in the context of Mary and Bob is because a lot of the life insurance professionals I have spoken with over the last nine months never fail to mention how important their profession is. Life insurance delivers certainty to families when they need it the most. Surely nobody who has ever received a death benefit would argue that point. Just recently, I had the opportunity to read a number of life insurance testimonials given by agents on what they felt were exemplary life insurance situations. And indeed, the policyholders in these cases were deeply aided by their life insurance. But most of them were families that were preserving a comfortable life, not falling back on a safety net without which would have consigned them to true destitution. Were it not for Bob, I honestly don’t know what would have become of Mary. What happens when a person dies and their family has neither the resources to deal with the body of the will to plan for it? Surely there are options, but none of them seem that palatable. People like this seem to be those who need life insurance the most, really. And yet, the way the industry is currently configured, these are the people least likely to get that kind of help. Why should the commissions-based agent spend their time selling nickel-and-dime policies to people who can only afford bare bones policies?

We see this in force with agents increasingly chasing high net worth clients, especially for life insurance and for financial planning. More and more, the life insurance world seems to resemble a bunch of sharks chasing tuna – going after fast targets that are difficult to go after and require much energy to catch. But in the same ocean, the largest creatures are whales, which get to be that size by eating with little effort huge amounts of tiny portions. Why are there not more whales in life insurance than sharks?

I say this without intending anything negative about sharks, by the way. The metaphor would hold up, I suppose, had I used dolphins or swordfish instead. Sharks just come to mind because they are good at what they do, as are life agents, who sell what they sell not out of a predatory impulse, but out of a keen sense for knowing what certain clients want and need and delivering that to them. Life agents,like sharks, are highly evolved beings that have developed their skill set to a remarkable degree. And that is worthy of admiration. The big difference is that sharks have managed to survive all evolutionary challenges to them so far. It is starting to look like life agents might not.

After all, the numbers of life agents themselves are at a low ebb. The average age of the life agent is higher than ever before. The Baby Boom is just starting to reach that point where it is less interested in buying life insurance than making a claim on it. When you look at where the L&H industry makes its money, only 30% comes from life insurance. 20% comes from health insurance (although goings on there makes up 80% of the coverage lately) and 50% comes from retirement planning. Maybe it is me, but I just cannot shake the feeling that how the industry perceives itself and how it actually is are not entirely in sync. Or as my neighbor Bob put it, “How come they don’t call health insurance life insurance, and life insurance death insurance? That’s what it really is. Except nobody wants to admit it.”