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Life Health > Life Insurance

Standing on Zanzibar

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On Monday, the world’s seven billionth person was born. A ceremonial child in India was chosen to be human #7,000,000,000, based largely on that country’s staggering birthrate of nearly 50 children an hour. India is already the world’s second most populous nation, with more than a billion people. China, of course, is the most populous nation, with 1.3 billion people. The United States comes in at a distant third with not even 400 million people. Here’s the funny thing, though: experts believe that China’s population will level off and perhaps even decline in coming years, so that by 2030, India will become the world’s most populous nation, at some 1.6 billion people.

Such population figures are hard for Americans to imagine. I live in New Jersey, which has a population density greater than Japan, believe it or not, and even at our most crowded summertime season, we cannot hold a candle to the population density to be found throughout much of India. But then you take a look at a global population density map, the writing is clearly on the wall: even though our many, many strengths allow us as a nation to be abundant in the natural resource that is people, Asis in general and Pacific Asia in particular is where it’s at.

There are huge downsides that come with this, of course. China is already learning that the hard way, since 90% of its people are living in about 10% of its total landmass, which also happens to be its most arable land. Unless China successfully ships off millions upon millions of people to live in cities in the desert, it will eventually run into problems just feeding itself, let alone making all of the stuff the rest of us like to buy. And it is troubling indeed that those countries that are growing the fastest relative to their ability to accomodate more people –namely, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Brazil — are also countries that are already showing some serious internal economic, political and security stresses.

Science fiction author John Brunner predicted this with creepy accuracy more than 40 years ago, when he wrote the dystopian novel, Stand on Zanzibar. It won the Hugo award and is generally hailed as a great piece of literature, but to be honest, I would never have read it if I did not go on a kick some years ago to read every novel that had won a Hugo or Nebula award. (Basically, the Oscars for the best fantasy or science fiction written in any given year.) But give Stand on Zanzibar a read. The story is in 2010, and there are – you guessed it – seven billion people on the planet. If every person on the planet would stand shoulder-to-shoulder, they would cover the entire land mass – all 2,600 square miles of it – of the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania. Hence, Stand on Zanzibar.

The comparison is derived from a poulation estimate at the end of World War II that the world’s population would cover the Isle of Wight. Since then, the islands that could hold all of the world’s population keep getting larger, and pretty soon, Zanzibar will no longer be the point of reference. Some other island – Manitoulin Island in Canada, perhaps – will soon have to be the new imaginary corral.

The main problem of the world in Stand on Zanzibar is that there are just too damn many people. Extreme population density, together with global communication and a very prescient description of what would become our modern internet culture have made people feel so hemmed in by the relentless barrage of news, opinion, couner-opinion, advertising and background chatter that people are increasingly being driven insane by it all. This phenomenon, known as “mucking” is the sign that the entire planet is hitting a tipping point.

What Brunner failed to predict, of course, is that the mammoth and unending mediaverse that our seven billion people constitute has has an opposite effect. True, living behind our computers has given us a feeling of increased isolation – a most ironic condition in large cities where you can be surrounded by people and still feel utterly alone. But we also have social media, which has developed and evolved in a way nobody really ever saw, and suddenly, all of that chatter and noise is bringing us together in ways we never expected. In a weird way, it kind of makes me wonder what we’ll be like at eight billion people. Nine? At some point there has to be a limit. I just can’t imagine what it will be. When the arms race of human ingenuity versus human fertility reaches a stalemate, I guess we’ll know.

In the meantime, all of these people make me think that the life industry, which often gripes about how hard it is to sell products in this country, maybe just isn’t looking in the right place. I mean, you’ve got maybe 100 million serious prospects in this country, probably half of whom are already (under)insured and not exactly rushing to buy more coverage. In a world where we can reach out and touch someone anywhere, maybe the industry should be taking the challenge of building a true next-gen distribution system by creating sales forces that can sell all over the world and take advantage of places like Brazil, India, Indonesia and China, that have growing needs for the kind of security only life insurance can provide, and are also having a free market that can be tapped for untold riches.

Lots of companies are already doing this, as I noted when discussing the Indian market. But honestly, I don’t see why life insurance and its affiliated products can’t be America’s next great export. Nobody knows how to do this business better than we do. So why do we try to hard trying to sell it to ourselves? A shark spends all of its energy trying to catch tuna and still dies hungry. A whale is the biggest thing in the ocean, and it gets that way eating huge quantities of the smallest critters in the water.

Obviously cracking into foreign markets is way, way, way more easily said than done. But this is there the heat is, people. There is no reason why we are keeping this industry to ourselves to the extent that we have done. Maybe it’s time we all learned a few new languages, dusted off our passports and visited some places that aren’t so much like us. After all, there’s  about seven billion good reasons to.


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