How can insurance agents feel optimistic amid volatile global markets, high unemployment numbers and fears that the United States is headed for a double-dip recession?

Present economic worries aside, individual life insurance coverage among American consumers has steadily declined over the past 50 years, according to a 2010 study by LIMRA. Yet life insurance is now more affordable than ever. So why are so many Americans today either uninsured or underinsured?

This was the question we set out to answer in the 2011 Genworth Financial LifeJacket Study: Revealing Insights to Close the Coverage Gap, which was conducted in collaboration with Gregory Fairchild and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in 2009 and 2010. Our research targeted the interests and habits of a demographic we define as “Main Street Americans.” This demographic represents the 70% of U.S. households with a combined annual income between $50,000 and $250,000. Past research has shown this population to have a diverse range of current and future financial needs. This group has also been identified as being the most likely to be engaged in, and responsive to, building a comprehensive financial portfolio, including life insurance.

Following are four simple strategies agents can employ to tap into the unmet life insurance needs of these households:

Milestone Events: Think Beyond “Once-in-a-Lifetime”

Milestone events such as marriage, the birth of a child, starting a new job or buying a home can motivate individuals to seek life insurance coverage. However, there are surprising differences in the time it takes consumers to pursue life insurance coverage after these events. For example, the average consumer waits six months to secure life insurance after beginning a new job, but 15 months after buying a new home. While these transitions create a desire for life insurance coverage, a disparity exists in the time it actually takes for consumers to make these purchases. These transitions should not be viewed as rare and infrequent sales opportunities, but rather as benchmarks that can be leveraged to the present and future needs of the client. There is an opportunity for financial professionals to shorten the timeframe between life transitions and purchases by providing clients greater control in the educational process.

Annual Check-Ins: Bridge the Disconnect

Nearly half (46%) of Main Street Americans indicated an interest in discussing life insurance needs with their financial advisors on either an annual, semi-annual or quarterly basis. Yet 26% of consumers said they couldn’t recall ever having reviewed their life insurance coverage with their advisor. Given this disconnect, another simple way agents can service the unmet requirements of this demographic is to schedule annual check-ins to ensure current policies are adequate and aligned with current lifestyle needs.

Financial Security: It’s a Journey, Not a Destination

Today’s economic uncertainty has prompted consumers to curtail expenses by cutting back on items they perceive as non-essential. As a result, some consumers have retreated from life insurance coverage entirely. Others are waiting for this time to pass. Many are confused as to whether or not they are fully prepared for what feels like an unpredictable and uncertain future. For many consumers, the cost of purchasing a life insurance policy to cover all of their family’s long-term financial needs may not be realistic. However, savvy agents can help clients understand that some life insurance coverage is better than none. Agents can look to build relationships with wary consumers by approaching the transaction as a journey instead of a destination. Agents can set short-term goals of having at least enough insurance today to ensure family members will be able to cover present financial obligations. Simultaneously, they can develop long-term plans to add incremental upgrades as a policyholder’s needs change, to ensure that clients gradually meet their long-term goal of financial security.

Generational Differences: Price Versus Features

Interestingly, 77% of the consumers we surveyed said they’ve never used an online life insurance calculator. But when shown examples, 88% of respondents indicated they would find them helpful during a life insurance transaction. Using online calculators during the purchase process provides another effective way for agents to educate today’s Main Street consumers about how much life insurance coverage they need to meet their family’s financial obligations. Our research also found important generational differences among the Main Street contingent. Younger prospects, who tend to be more sensitive to price, expressed more interest in using online calculators, whereas older consumers seem to display a preference for product comparisons and features. Therefore, insurance agents should take age differences into account when pursuing prospects and servicing clients.

Although individual life insurance sales have reached a 50-year low and current economic conditions render transactions more challenging than ever before, pockets of promise do exist. There are simple strategies that enterprising agents can employ to tap into the unmet life insurance needs of the 70% of U.S. households that comprise the Main Street demographic.

Anthony Vossenberg is senior vice president, Life and Annuities, at Genworth Financial.