The history of PricewaterhouseCoopers goes back to 1849 when Samuel Lowell Price set up business in London. Shortly after that, in 1854, William Cooper started his firm, which would later become Cooper Brothers. It’s hard to know what either Price and Cooper were thinking about back then other than outrageous blacksmith prices and how to avoid getting an infection from a paper cut. It’s unlikely that they could’ve imagined the size and scope their firms would become, or that they would provide livelihoods for thousands, maybe millions, of people all over the world.
Along the way to becoming a global behemoth, however, PwC became a firm synonymous with hard work and little else. If you think that’s exaggerating, then here’s a quote for you from this Quartz article:
“We sort of pride our selves on, ‘Ah, we don’t need to have lives, we just forge ahead,’” says Anne Donovan, the company’s US “people innovation leader,” summarizing the mindset that prevailed at PwC for most of her 34 years there.
The “What do I need a life for?” is not news to anyone who’s worked at PwC or any Big 4 firm (or its predecessors). The absence of work-life balance has been a cornerstone of the accounting profession’s culture for decades, and served as inspiration for Going Concern’s coverage since the beginning of the site.
At some point, however, a few people at PwC started noticing that more and more people weren’t towing the line on “we don’t need lives”:
[M]illennial employees, who by 2013 represented two-thirds of the company’s workforce, were no longer so willing to shelve their personal lives indefinitely for the possibility of a lucrative partnership years down the road. And those who did start as associates were far more likely than their predecessors to complain when flexibility promised in the recruiting process failed to materialize.
Again, this is not news to anyone who’s spent even a small amount of time on this site. Big 4 employees of all kinds were sending biting farewell emails, seeking career advice, and complaining — lots and lots of complaining — about their unfulfilling professional lives. And not surprisingly, people were leaving the firms in droves:
PwC faced “crisis-level attrition,” says Jonathan Amy, a PwC training executive. (The firm’s titles skew grand and opaque. Amy’s official title is “chief learning architect for learning and development.”) The attrition, coupled with reluctance at college recruiting events, made clear how unenthused the new generation was with the company’s culture. PwC’s youngest employees were leaving at rates incomparable to previous generations. As soon as they got the opportunity to go somewhere else, they went.
So PwC did what consultants do best: a study. In partnership with the University of Southern California and the London Business School, the company undertook a review of its own workforce. Between 2011 and 2012, the company surveyed 44,000 employees around the world.
That survey revealed that everyone at the firm wanted better lives, not just young employees; it’s just that millennials were willing “to question long-held assumptions about how that work should be done,” and “to speak up about their dissatisfaction, and to opt out when problems couldn’t be resolved.”
While millennials have been instrumental in this willingness to speak up, I’d go one step further to say that it was millennial women who led this charge. Think about it. Accounting is a profession that has been dominated by men since forever. Does anyone seriously think that if women hadn’t started entering accounting firms en masse 15-20 years ago that anything would’ve changed? Without women, Big 4 firms would still be an army of ill-fitting, blue button-down shirts working 16-hour days, insisting on mandatory Saturdays. Some smaller firms are still that way.
Only during this period, when millennial women are becoming an important and vocal part of PwC’s workforce, could this culture change be possible. Their male colleagues, not being complete idiots, saw what they were doing and heard what they were saying and realized they were right.
All this now adds up to 90 percent of the firm’s employees “incorporat[ing] some kind of flexibility into their schedules” and senior associates going on retreats in Southern California to discuss “wellbeing” “mindfulness” and attend other sessions with “Boxes of tissues […] placed in easy reach around the room.”
Is it a rebellion? Meh, maybe. If so, it’s been over 150 years in the making; and it’s long overdue.