Making accounting cool, or: calling Miley Cyrus!

How Can We Make Accounting Cool? asked a recent Wall Street Journal article

It’s written by Joe Queenan. Here are some extracts:

  • In the past two years, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, 300,000 accountants and auditors have left the profession, many on the dead run. The situation is so dire that American firms are now desperately recruiting accountants from overseas. In other words, there is an accounting deficit.
  • The reason for the mass exodus of “bean counters” from the profession may have a lot to do with the very existence of that derisive term. If you look up the definition of “bean counter” you’ll read that accountants are shy, persnickety fussbudgets who are obsessed with trivial details. In popular lore, accountants are depicted as spectacularly unexciting numbers crunchers whose eyes are concealed behind green eyeshades, who have their heads buried in Byzantine financial statements and who seem to share a common genetic history with voles.
  • For the longest time, young people didn’t mind being referred to in such derogatory terms, as the money was good and it was certainly preferable to being called a grease monkey or a garbage man or a proctologist.
  • All that has changed in recent years. With the rise of the tenaciously held millennial belief that work should have meaning, that work should never be uninspiring, that work should never be uncool, accounting has lost whatever luster it once had. It also doesn’t help that accounting is hard work.
  • … The solution to this problem is twofold. One, American firms must raise salaries to make the accounting profession more appealing. Two, the accounting profession must take steps to make itself seem more glamorous and appealing. Testimonials from flashy, exciting practitioners of the trade would help… The point I am making is that the accounting profession itself needs to combat its public profile as being dreary, tedious and sad. 
  • … One thing is clear: It’s no good waiting for the cavalry to arrive from overseas and balance the books. The Roman Empire fell in large part because it had to recruit foreigners to do all the demanding white-collar jobs. A society that can’t produce enough accountants to keep track of where the money went is a society whose days may be numbered.

Unfortunately, albeit understandably, Queenan’s diagnosis of the problem is much more convincing than that of the solution. The suggestions that films like Ben Affleck’s The Accountant “certainly help,” or that much would be gained through “glitzy Super Bowl halftime commercials for one of the major accounting firms” featuring Miley Cyrus, seem fanciful at best (by the way, I wrote about the Affleck film here). Still, it seems true that the “meaning” of accountancy has evolved for the worst over the years. I entered the profession in the late 1980’s (somewhat randomly) as an arts graduate – my particular degree (in film and philosophy) was always a bit unusual, but the general notion of coming to accountancy as a change of direction wasn’t entirely novel. Back then, the standards were fairly general and the regulatory aspects weren’t too onerous (almost no notes!) so the job was perhaps surprisingly well-aligned with a more creative temperament (no doubt the work product was much inferior to what we have now, but I’m just addressing the lived experience of doing the job). Nowadays every aspect of the work is far more defined and circumscribed, with greater pressures and demands in multiple ways, and the scope to rewardingly find and grow oneself within that is correspondingly less. It’s far less likely that a film and philosophy graduate would be drawn to the profession now, or (despite the recruitment problems) that they’d be welcomed in if they tried.

The issue isn’t that the accounting profession “must take steps to make itself seem more glamorous and appealing” but that it actually needs to be more glamorous and appealing. I don’t have all the answers, or even any of them, but I’m certain that the right direction doesn’t lie in an ever-increasing compliance burden, in which it’s viewed almost as a truism that almost no one reads much of the output which is so expensively laboured over, and where we’re meant to be scandalized that a major firm misidentifies “KPMG Audit SRL” as “KPMG Romania SRL.” A creative restructuring of the reporting infrastructure is required, perhaps for example by removing the bulk of the notes from the scope of the audit, and providing them as unaudited supplementary information. The interplay between financial reporting and sustainability reporting should be nurtured, making it easier to have a foot in both disciplines. The profession should seek out a wider range of backgrounds and temperaments, to complement the progress it’s made on diversity in other respects; it should emphasize discovery over technology, coherence over compliance…

And sure, higher salaries probably wouldn’t hurt. As long as they’re not just trying to distract attention from dreariness and sadness…

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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