The twin forces of increased longevity and low interest rates are creating havoc for life insurers, Ric Edelman of the eponymous firm said yesterday during a presentation on accelerating change at Singularity University’s Exponential Finance conference in New York City.

If his firm wasn’t a long-only asset manager, “I’d sell life insurers short,” he said, referring to the dual headwinds they are confronting.

But there is another reason he wouldn’t sell them short. If one ever meets top executives in the insurance industry, “they are usually the smartest guys in the room so they’ll figure this out.”

Edelman compared the predicament facing life insurers to the position oil companies find themselves in as the world moves away from fossil fuels. “Do you really think Exxon is going to sit there” while oil consumption declines dramatically over the next 30 years? He predicted they’d make a series of major moves into alternative energy.

Longevity is actually a double-edged sword for insurers. On the insurance side of their business, it is a positive in that if people are living 5 or 10 years longer, carriers don’t have to pay off a policy as quickly as they once did.

But as the risks of living very long increasingly outweigh the risks of dying too soon, many life insurers have seen annuity business overtake their insurance policy sales. That’s where the problem arises, particularly for insurers that have stressed annuities and downplayed insurance.

Low interest rates are compounding the problem and making the challenge of matching assets and liabilities difficult. In some European nations with negative interest rates, insurers are required to keep a portion of their assets in government bonds that pay virtually nothing or even require the investor to pay the government to buy them.

It’s not just life insurers being challenged by exponential change. Technology, information transparency and regulation are squeezing the entire financial services industry at a time when clients are becoming better educated, Edelman said.

The basic purpose of most financial planners is retirement planning, which Edelman called a 20th century concept that is going to disappear as we know it. Many younger clients today are likely to live beyond 100, he said, and it’s simply impossible to work for 40 years and retire for 60.

Another speaker at the event was Ray Kurzweil, chief engineer at Google and a founder of Singularity University. The concept of the singularity basically revolves around the time when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence and creates wave after wave of radical changes. Kurzweil has predicted that humans may soon start living much longer, possibly 300 years.

Edelman acknowledged that raising some of these issues with clients is a conversation that some people view as far-fetched. One private equity executive who invested in Edelman Financial Services dismissed the concept completely. This investor, a gentleman in his seventies, told Edelman that “singularity is the same thing as Scientology.”

Edelman didn’t identify the investor, but did say it was not former Prudential Securites CEO George Ball or private equity tycoon Thomas H. Lee.