An Anthropologist Looks at Insurance

May 21, 2018


To start off, let me confess that I’m not an insurance person at all. I’m actually a retired university professor of cultural anthropology.  Of what you ask?  It is the study of other cultures, that’s what.  I was inducted into the insurance profession by my wife, Sharon Emek, the founder of WAHVE (maybe I should say I was indicted).  In any case, I did learn a thing or two about human nature both from my college level teaching and my own experiences in the profession.  As a social scientist, you do learn how to be a good listener and a good interviewer, and you do get to know the people you work with (I use italics here because I never thought of what I did as work:  it was fun!). And that’s what I want to tell you about.  If you have questions, please raise your hand.

My job at WAHVE is to interview and qualify applicants to become remote, at-home workers.  So, I have plenty of opportunity to use my highly-toned social science interview skills and academic wisdom (not entirely a joke).  From that perspective, what did I find out about the insurance profession and our applicants who are its practitioners?  What, indeed!  But let me start with a preparatory word about the enterprise of the analytical interview.

First, please remember the cardinal rule of the anthropological enterprise. The well-trained social scientist does not begin by jumping into a social milieu and firing questions at all and sundry.  On the contrary; no, the first task in any sociological project is to formulate the right questions.  Before collecting the data from live subjects, the smart social scientist must know what he’s looking for.  What is the scope of the knowledge to be gained?  To whose good and for what purpose?  So, being a punctilious social scientist, I sat down last month and, before putting pen to paper (I’m dating myself, I know), I gave all this some thought.  A few weeks later, a eureka moment came to me. What I wanted to share with you, my colleagues in my new vocation of insurance, was: what kind of people want to continue working in the insurance industry after retirement age?  Why not just enjoy the grandkids and the golf?  Why bother?  And, why do they want to work from home?  In other words, what are their motivations and goals in applying to the WAHVE program, aside from just the income, I mean?

In aggregate, answering these questions might indeed help us understand what is currently happening within this ageing industry and what’s happening within the workforce in the broader sense when it comes to seniors and life-work balance. This in turn might help us counteract the loss of talent and even, maybe, help us find a way of enticing younger folks into a graying and seemingly unappealing profession.  So, for example: what gratifications do people experience in this business?  What gives the practitioner of the insurance business a sense of fulfillment?  Of course, many other questions could be asked, but being judicious social scientists, we have to narrow the scope and concentrate on the most salient.

I could at this point regress and get academic on you, dear reader, dazzle you with jargon and cultural theory, anthropological methodology and tedious statistics; but I’m not going to do that.  The reader is no doubt already thoroughly confused, a softening-up, which is the first step in successful scholarly communication.  Habits are hard to break.  But now, all that being said, it’s time for the enlightenment.  Besides, I’ve been sufficiently through the boredom mill of theoretical and methodological comments and have a generally merciful soul.

Let’s start with the data.  In this case the data are simply facts drawn from my thousands of interviews with people seeking to remain in the insurance game by going remote in the WAHVE model. What we must look for are convergences and common denominators, all the while being on the lookout also for anomalies, variations and deviations from the norm.  Well, wait… is there a norm?  That’s the first question.  Convergences in what people say, if ample, denote common themes, and common themes, in turn, denote statistical correlations in life experience, professional and life-style goals, not to mention feelings, in general, about working the insurance business.

Okay, let’s get down to brass tacks. What are these people like? What do they say and think? Instead of citing a thousand case studies at you, a scholarly trick to induce tedium and therefore gullibility, let me use the old standby model of what is called the composite interviewee.  This is a person with all the common denominators encountered in the data collection process who creates a single sample individual who represents the norm.

What about methods?  What I do is call and interview our applicants, asking them various questions about their backgrounds and credentials in order to establish their eligibility.  I also query them about their goals in applying to WAHVE.  Not to belabor the matter, the questions are direct and businesslike, interspersed with some personality questions, which supposedly provide insight into the applicant’s psychological suitability to work loosely supervised from home with a presumably high degree of industriousness.

So, I speak to the applicant–maybe for 10 or 15 minutes. There are two interviews: the first is preliminary screening; the second a much longer in-depth interview which comes only after the candidate has shown seriousness and sent in our detailed four-page application form.  Most of our candidates are women (about 80%), so our composite will be female.  She’s between 55 and 65 years old, and either has been retired for a few months, or she’s on the verge of retiring from a full-time insurance job–most often with an independent agency or a brokerage firm.  I handle the retail and independent agency side of the business; a colleague takes care of the carrier and the wholesale sides. So, keep that in mind.

Now, this Applicant is, of course, pre-selected.  That is, folks who apply to WAHVE already have certain distinguishing qualities.  For example, they are eager to continue working despite their years, meaning they are enthusiastic about insurance and enjoy the work.  They’re partial to the idea of working from home.  Many find retirement boring, or in the case of the still-employed, a daunting vacuum, a scary inchoate nothingness, in which they fear drowning in boredom.  Obviously, our applicant is also industrious, motivated and energetic.  She’s not lying down on the couch and putting a foot in the grave, or worse, playing endless rounds of golf.  She wants more in her golden years.  So, I call her.  She answers the phone briskly.  I introduce myself, explain the purpose of the call and the interview begins.  Here’s what I learn.

First, age.  She’s about 60.  She’s either retired fully or she’s thinking about retiring or leaving her present job and working from home.  Why?  Most often, she says the commute is killing her; or she’s bored being retired and needs something productive to do.  Retirement isn’t what it’s cracked up to be!  One of the things I keep hearing is that these people really want to keep busy, but not just to be active for activity’s sake, but also to be productive.  That is, they want to make some sort of contribution.  They want to give back to the profession that sustained them for so long.  Also, they are proud of their accumulated knowledge.  They like the work; it’s challenging.  Contrary to the perennial stereotype of the bored and boring insurance agent, they are not bored.  Please forgive me, but I always think of Woody Allen in “Sleeper,” where he’s committed some infraction or other and is condemned to being locked in a basement overnight with a deadly dull insurance salesman.  No, our applicant enjoys the work: she finds it interesting, varied, engrossing.  So much for the popular misrepresentation of insurance as numbingly dull and repetitive.  So, I’m actually learning something here.

Our applicant speaks well; she’s articulate—even without a BA. Well, now that I brought that up, what about her education?  Our composite graduated from High School in the 1970s and went right to work in insurance–no college, too busy.  Her first job, age 18, was as a receptionist or file-clerk in an agency.  She fell in love with the mystique of the profession and its complexities; she’s delighted by the opportunity to help people, to get the customers safe and sound, protected.  She has an almost maternal concern for their welfare.  She likes explaining the need for coverage to people who are totally clueless.  She can explain why they need to insure their outhouse for slips-and-falls or their moldy roof for leaks and collapses.  She educates them about liability – a scary word most people have no use for.  Let’s face it, insurance is a weird commodity: it’s abstract; it’s immaterial; you can’t see it, you can’t taste it, touch it, or smell it (one hopes anyway).  It’s something you need only when you need it, and by then it’s too late.  Life is an accident waiting to happen.  Insurance is a promise, not a thing; it’s a contract, a commitment. So, another thing I learned: insurance professionals actually do something useful for their fellow man!

Perhaps most importantly from my point of view, coming as I do from a non-insurance and somewhat skeptical background, is that the insurance profession can be as exciting to many people, as rewarding and as intellectually challenging as any other.  Insurance can be as relevant to real life.  It can also be more practical than supposedly more sophisticated professions such as business, medicine or law.  What I mean is that the people I interview are involved in puzzles and mental challenges with serious impact, such as: how to get the best coverage for vulnerable clients; where to look to market their products; how to help the client overcome their skepticism; how to keep them safe, how to juggle the often-contrasting demands of the underwriters, the agents and the policy-holders. ‘It is no easy balance,’ as we say in cultural anthropology. It’s a real challenge, and one that I think sharpens the mind. My conclusion: Insurance people are awesome! – David Gilmore

Making Wahves

This post is part of our Making Wahves series that highlights members of the WAHVE team.


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