Accounting Firms Should Embrace the Digital Fountain of Youth

When did the AICPA decide that “young” professionals are 22 to 40 (yes, 40) years old? Am I the only one to thinks 40 may be too old for that designation? Imagine if society considered professional athletes “young” if they met the under 40 threshold…  

Don’t get me wrong — accounting is one industry where experience (read: being older and wiser) matters. I’m the first to admit it. I learn something new every day. The problem is that, agism does exist in accounting, just not in the same way as it does in other industries.

According to Fast Company, “One in three older workers has either experienced discrimination or seen it happen firsthand since 2008.” In accounting, is it the other way around? Are younger CPAs edged out?

I argue yes — and it’s too bad.

Prescribed pecking order

Is it just me or does it seem like you have to have at least a few public accounting war stories to get taken seriously? I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard, “You have to pay your dues in public to succeed in accounting.”

Remind me again why Big 4 is such a great place to start your career? Oh, that’s right, ladder climbing is a rite of passage in public accounting. It opens doors in your career. Survive until Senior — that’s ok. Manager — even better.

Ugh.

Yes, a “seasoned” professional brings a lot to the table. I know I wouldn’t want a doctor who's fresh out of medical school. But isn’t there room at the “big kid” table for a little diversity of experience?

That’s the frustrating part about Big 4 — you must put in the time to advance. According to the Journal of Accountancy, “institutional rules and procedures can make it particularly challenging to accelerate the process” of being named partner. Of course, early promotions to partner might disrupt the balance of power and seed dissatisfaction in the ranks because it “wasn’t fair” to everyone. Partnership takes at least 10-15 years at Big 4, national, and regional firms. Although, some firms are known for promoting rock star CPAs more quickly than Big 4.

Digital natives

Why not spice things up by taking a chance on tech-savvy digital natives? After growing up with technology, firms might be surprised what someone brought up in the age of tech innately knows. Knowledge that is valuable and untapped.

With few exceptions, accounting firm partners are primarily digital immigrants, or born before the advent of modern technology. Inside Public Accounting cited the average age of equity partners as 52.7.

And, even though partners are the powerful leaders of an office, many don’t know what they are doing when it comes to technology. Without the native digital fluency, partners have to fake it. No one want to admit their weaknesses. Are any Big 4 teams still favoring hard copy workpapers for partner review and sign-off? My bet is yes.

Bravo, SAP

Occasionally, someone breaks into the upper echelon without following the standard timeline. Mark Jain made partner at EY at age 32. Last week, Forbes interviewed Thomas Saueressig, newly appointed CIO of SAP. Outside public accounting, I know, but he’s only 31 and it’s a noteworthy move. In his own words, he shares what makes him valuable to the company:

There is more than one advantage. While I am not officially a digital native, I am of the generation that grew up with personal computers. I could write Basic code at the age of six – long before I could write a grammatically correct sentence. This level of comfort with PCs means I completely understand and relate to how millennials expect their work environment to function. They want to be flexible, they want instant access, and they want applications to be seamless. This makes them both happy and productive.

… and continuing:

On the whole, millennials are able to accept and embrace change. While we rely on our older colleagues for their wisdom and experience, it is also important to have individuals who fuel change energetically. I appreciate that the SAP workplace makes room for both.

This raises obvious questions: Why are accounting firms so hesitant to give more young, millennial CPAs a chance? Aren't digital natives’ innate technology skills worth recognizing? Let's talk it out.

Image: iStockPhoto/Minerva Studio
 

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