For a generation that, for the most part, has trouble committing to what they are going to have for dinner on any given night, millennials display a remarkable dedication and interest in financial planning. Though they willingly shun some traditional sales tactics (the cold call or the knock on the door) they gravitate towards others (internet marketing, word-of-mouth referrals and casual face-to-face interactions). Many do not have their financial houses in order; due to stagnant wages as a residual result of the global financial crisis, student loan debt and a culture that facilitates reckless credit card use, most have a long way to go before they reach a point where they are comprehensively financially healthy.

The significant baggage attached to many millennials can be overlooked, however, because, as they enter into their prime earning years, they could be a lifeline to an industry that is perceived as antiquated, dull and increasingly marginalized and out of step with contemporary society. With some estimates placing them as high as 76 million — almost equal to the boomers that have been funding the life insurance industry for nearly half a century — millennials, with their enthusiasm and interest in financial planning, are a monumental opportunity for an industry that has been striving to stay relevant, prevalent and profitable.

Recent statistics from LIMRA have shown individual life insurance ownership has hit a 50-year low. While the industry struggles to gain traction, can the generation that grew up as latchkey kids, distrusting many conventional marketing methods and delaying marriage, purchasing homes and starting families really be the best hope for reinvigorating life sales? It would seem there is no other choice. If life insurance is going to remain as integral a part of Americans’ household finances as it has been historically, millennials appear to be the obvious and only place to start. They are engaged in financial planning; the industry just needs to get them to turn their heads in its direction. The question is, how much of this hinges on the degree to which insurers are building a millennial sales force that can sell to their own peers?

See also: 9 ways to sell to Gen Y

The graying of the workforce

As my colleague Brian Anderson so accurately put it, “Peer out at the audience from the main platform at just about any industry event and heads with gray hair, white hair or no hair will dominate your field of vision.” According to LIMRA, the median age for an independent life insurance agent is 51. The median age of the U.S. worker is 42.3 according to The Department of Labor. This is one statistic in a sea of data on the industry’s aging workforce that intensely illustrates the unfortunate position the life insurance industry is in. By 2030, how many of those agents will have retired? The problem is reaching disastrous proportions. LIMRA statistics show that independent life producers dropped from 163,409 in 2007 to 149,187 in 2010.

The decline has continued since then. Millennials often feel overlooked by the current workforce. As one within that generation candidly told me, “I feel a lot of these guys have their established book of business and are on cruise control until they retire.” If that sentiment becomes more widespread, the life insurance industry as we know it could wither on the vine right in front of our eyes, all while an engaged demographic some 70 million strong look at other options for protecting themselves and their budding families.

One of those options is purchasing life insurance policies directly from their bank. Millennials worship convenience as a value, and many appear to be content using their bank as a one-stop-shop for all of their planning needs. A LIMRA report from last year found that 7 in 10 consumers would consider buying life insurance from their bank. If the industry fails to revitalize its workforce and its methods, this could augur a bleak future for traditional life insurance and the families and individuals that rely on it.

The rookie

Fresh out of graduate school with a Masters in Business Administration, Geoff immediately gravitated to the financial services industry. The 30-year-old former banker and current financial representative is studying for both his Series 7 and Certified Financial Planner exams. Geoff works for a large financial planning and services firm that operates throughout the Northeastern U.S. One of the reasons he wanted to get involved in the industry is because he saw firsthand the interest in financial planning his peers displayed and the lack of guidance they were offered.

“We grew up in an age of instant gratification,” Geoff said. “Millennials are interested in saving, but have no savings. They do not want to work as long as their parents, but they have no retirement plan in place. They are earning money, while at the same time driving themselves into debt. There is a lot of opportunity out there for someone my age. I have many friends, acquaintances and peers who are getting engaged, buying homes and having children. There are many more just behind them who will be doing all of those things within in the next five years. Many, if not all, want to deal with someone their own age [when it comes to planning]. All of the younger individuals in my workplace are ready to take advantage of their niche. We are in a unique position to speak to millennials as peers; there are definitely more millennial prospects out there than there are millennial producers to handle them.”

See also: The salesman who doesn’t sell

The advantage of millennial producers?

Patrick Leary, assistant vice president, distribution research with LIMRA is not sure guys like Geoff necessarily have a leg up, although he does admit that Millennial producers hold some cards that older sales professionals do not when it comes to reaching prospects their own age. “The younger agents and advisors out there are probably closer to and appreciate the value that new sales models have,” said Leary. “Naturally, I think they are going to be more apt to leverage technology in order to connect with their peers. When looking at Millennial producers, my guess is that they are ahead of the curve when compared to some older professionals as far as integrating technology into part of their business practice.”

Carriers are making progress when it comes to recruiting a younger workforce, but Leary maintains that many are recruiting with yesterday’s incentives when some of the industry’s basic structures are exactly what millennial job seekers want: Flexible hours, assisting other people, being part of a team and having a work/life balance. These are more of a priority for millennials than they have been to other generations, Leary believes. A revamping of the industry’s recruitment process could have huge payoffs. However, whatever efforts the industry is making, they are getting some return on their investments.

The fact that recruitment of millennial workers is on the upswing is undoubtedly a good sign for the long-term vitality and viability of the industry, but the question remains whether millennial producers have an advantage over older sales professionals when it comes to selling to millennial prospects. Leary says that LIMRA’s research has found that many young people want someone a few years older than themselves to assist with their financial planning — which means many will want a producer that is of their same generation. But are there enough millennial producers out there to handle the wave of millennial prospects rapidly heading toward life insurers’ shores? It doesn’t seem that way.

Hitting the street

Greg is a recently engaged 29-year-old consultant from Hoboken, N.J., who owns a small term life policy he purchased through his employer. His enthusiasm regarding his future is conveyed by his enthusiasm for a more comprehensive financial plan. “I am very interested in purchasing more life insurance. I will have a lot going on in the next five years or so,” Greg said. “I am getting married next year, will soon after look to purchase a home and then we will most likely think about having children. A life insurance product with some type of accumulation, I assume, would be a great fit.”

See also: 14 reasons why life insurance is the best

Greg went on to say he does not feel that he has been directly marketed to by anyone in the financial services industry and is not sure what his best course of action would be. When asked if he would rather find a financial professional close to his own age, he energetically said yes. “What is really important to me is specialization of knowledge, expertise. If someone my own age has the knowledge, I would much rather work with them. Things would be easier, lighter, we could joke around. Another concern I have when working with someone older is that they may not be around too long. We could build a rapport, work well for a couple of years and then they may retire. I would not be happy with that.”

Drew seemed to echo Greg’s sentiment. The 28-year-old hairstylist and father of two from Jersey City, N.J., owns a small life policy that he readily admitted was not enough. “I know I should probably have more coverage but it is just one of those things that gets put off,” he said. “I have not been approached by anyone since my initial policy purchase and definitely do not feel that I have been marketed to.” When asked if he would prefer to work with an advisor his age he quickly responded, “Without a doubt. It would make things a lot easier.”

Educated, not sold

“The best way to get to millennials is to have millennial salespeople on the surface,” said Mark Hug, executive vice president, product and marketing, individual life insurance, Prudential Financial. Hug maintains that millennials very much want people who think like them. In his experience, Millennials do not want to be sold, they want to be educated — and the difference between the two is significant. While boomers prefer the traditional sales process, millennials want to be “educated, empowered and then arrive at a decision themselves,” Hug said. He feels most millennial producers understand this, which could be one reason they are more successful in selling to their generational counterparts. However, he was careful to stress that you do not have to be a millennial to sell to millennials — you simply have to understand their needs.

See our infographic: Meet Joe Gen Y

If studying and understanding the demographic is one way to successfully sell to millennials, why aren’t older sales professionals getting their attention? Hug feels that one problem is the perception among many older producers that millennials are a market that do not have a lot of money; leaving them chasing an older population who they perceive as being wealthier. “What they are missing is that within the next three years — three years tops — the buying power of millennials is going to exceed that of boomers,” Hug said. “We are talking about a market that has money, although they are not perceived as having it. They have the money and they need someone to talk to. Prudential’s research shows that 48 percent of Millennials plan to buy life insurance within the next three years. The market is ripe, we just have to do a better job of training older agents to go after it. What helps are digital advancements and more millennial producers entering the sales force.”

They can get kind of rusty

Caitlin is a 27-year-old teacher from Hoboken, N.J. She owns a small term life policy offered through her union’s benefit program and feels that, for the moment, it is sufficient. She has a long-term boyfriend and anticipates getting engaged in the near future, at which point she would be open to purchasing more life insurance, preferably, she said, something that could accumulate long-term value. When asked if she would feel more comfortable working with someone her own age, she thought for a second and responded, “My first inclination would be to work with someone older, but thinking about it, I know many young people across many fields that are very good at what they do,” Caitlin said. “In teaching, for example, some of the older teachers are not as tech savvy and get really stuck in their ways, leaving the kids with antiquated teaching methods. Even with mandatory workshops to keep them current, older teachers can get kind of rusty. I think I would rather work with someone who is younger.”

Dan does not agree. He was the only millennial interviewed for this article that expressed a desire to work with an older producer as opposed to someone his own age. The 29-year-old married financial analyst from Manhattan has a small term policy he purchased through his firm, and adamantly said that he is not and will not be in the market for any more life insurance until he has children. He matter-of-factly stated that he is healthy, and that if something were to happen to him, his wife would be able to “fend for herself.” He admitted that when he has children his outlook would most likely change. When the time comes, Dan said he would rather work with a seasoned veteran, stating, “I want someone with experience. My generation is full of people who cannot even pay their credit card bills on time. I am not keen on taking financial advice from one of them.”

A possible sea change?

Dave Wilken, head of individual life distribution for ING U.S., seems hopeful that an independent sales force will be able to reach millennials as they enter into the stage of their lives where they need financial guidance. For a long time, Wilken said it was primarily career companies that did the best job recruiting young people and that is slowly starting to change. “What we are seeing now are more steps being taken by independent distributors to recruit and train millennial agents,” said Wilken. “In the past, independent distribution just evolved from career distribution, but now we are seeing independent distributors out there molding producers.” This shift, Wilken feels, could translate into more millennial producers to serve the vast millennial market. Wilken mentions sitting in an independent distribution group’s annual convention where their membership has increased by nearly 50 percent. Much of the growth, he said, is from millennial producers who are recently out of college or making early career changes.

Despite the broad assumption that millennials prefer digital communication, Wilken believes that one strength among millennial producers is their willingness to sit across the table with a prospect. Of course, that conversation is much more fluid and organic when it is a millennial sitting across from another millennial.

Peers at the table

And could that be it? Could it be as simple as two generational peers, who have been running through life at the same pace, building a future relationship that hopefully builds wealth for both parties involved? It does sound plausible, it does sound rational, but can it be actionable? After all, millennials know each other well. They have lived through the same fads, they have watched the extraordinary last 13 years from the same vantage point, and many have the same values and the same way of achieving their goals while keeping those values intact.

It would seem that the relationship is mutually beneficial to both parties — or rather, all parties, including the industry itself. There is a huge opportunity knocking on the door of the life insurance industry, one that could easily ameliorate two of its deepest and most detrimental flaws: Its rapidly aging workforce and its inability to stay relevant. The question is, as always, will it answer?

See also:

Why millennials matter

9 ways to sell to Gen Y

The top 10 risks facing the insurance industry