The Generational Divide in the Accounting Profession and Why It Matters

So lucky me, I just got home from a trip to Turf Valley to hang out with the Maryland Association of CPAs for their Generational Symposium, which you totally missed this morning. It wasn't a massive crowd but it's not the number of attendees that mattered, it's the fact that the accounting profession is willing to have this conversation.

I've seen MACPA CEO Tom Hood work a room of old salty industry vets the same way he can relate to a group of young professionals, so I wasn't surprised when he got attendees to open up a bit about what generational issues are doing to the profession and, more importantly, what everyone can do about it. At the end of the day, I left feeling like the best thing to do is talk about them. Not among our like-minded generational counterparts but across the generations.

Here's how this works: we know there's a little bit of awkwardness when it comes to everyone working together. This is the first time we've had four generations elbowed-up in the workplace and there are bound to be some differences here and there. The partners think fresh-faced interns are a bunch of idiots attached to their phones all day, the first and second years need their partners to give them feedback on the work they're putting out and poor Gen Xers are stuck somewhere in between, mediating between two very different generations. You can see why this gets messy.

But if you go off of what was discussed at the symposium today, you realize, first and foremost, that no one likes being pigeonholed. Why is it not OK to say, "That guy is Asian, he must be good at math" but it's totally okay to say, "She's a Millennial, she must be lazy"? That's a serious question.

Generational stereotypes do nothing to help develop a more efficient workplace, nor do they really get much work done at all. Yes, certain characteristics are generally shared across a generation due to world events such as wars, recessions and cultural shifts but relying on these characteristics and judging other generations as a result of them is no more productive than building a team based on zodiac signs.

Early in the day, Tom shared an excerpt from an old David Maister blog post submitted to him by a young professional (you'll have to click over to read the whole story):

Unfortunately, this industry will continue to reward those who sacrifice their time, their family and their lives over those who find ways to manage effectively, and become more efficient. The end result is that current senior management will label my generation as lazy and arrogant (both are partially true). If you tell me that I can achieve success, as my superiors have, by working 3,000 hours a year I would see it as a failure. If I have to work as much as someone else did 20 years ago to accomplish the same results have we really progressed at all?

And that's what it is about. Not once have I ever heard a young professional actually suggest they want 4 hour days, Fridays off, and cake every other Wednesday as a reward for a job well done. But to read the countless articles written for partners on how to handle Millennials (as if they are wild animals to be tamed in the zoo that is the profession and not human beings), you'd think these kids are asking for corner offices and reserved parking spots fresh out of college. Sure, there are a few entitled brats out there but that's nothing new and certainly not exclusive to Gen Y.

Besides, when one Gen Y attendee said he'd like to work in 4 hour blocks and get an hour to run out for coffee so he can come back and destroy another 4 hours, one Boomer attendee reminded everyone that he too needs frequent breaks, except for him it's so he can go potty.

You see? We're not all that different after all.

Lastly, toward the end the group was asked to divide up by table to come up with solutions for the generational rift in the profession. I happened to end up with several young professionals, all from the same firm, who were sent to the symposium "because it sounded like something they should attend" according to their firm. Well that's all well and good but shouldn't the older folks be equally open to discussing this stuff? And shouldn't the younger staff be exposed to a wider range of CPE that will make them better CPAs like the kinds of things that were covered at MACPA's Innovation Summit last month? There were significantly fewer younger attendees at that event, perhaps — as someone suggested to me — because someone has to stay behind and do the work while the older professionals run off to a conference. See the divide yet?

pic via Bill Sheridan.

Here's the reality: everyone has to work together. It can either be done the easy way or the hard way. Today proved that the easy way is getting together like the adults we all are and talking it out. That's not so scary, is it?

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