What’s the future for Gen X accountants?

Jan 21, 2020 | Key Business skills, Strategy

Attitudes to work life balance are changing. So are the needs of firms when it comes to offering long-term career prospects. How will this affect your firm and your prospects?

Last year I wrote a piece in which I suggested that ‘Generation X’ accountants (born in the 60s and 70s) are those who face the most challenges from the future. I was referring especially to those Gen X accountants who worked for firms and who had not (yet) made partner.

This followed a number of conversations with managing partners of larger accountancy firms. They had each told me that they were particularly concerned about the future for those Gen X managers who are unlikely to make partner in the firm. In the past such career managers have provided a useful support to client relationship partners. However, over the next 5-10 years, much of that support role will be available  from much younger colleagues (Gen Z and Millennials) working with increasingly ‘intelligent’ tech apps and systems.

As a result, few of those Gen X (non partner) accountants can be confident that their jobs will be safe for more than a few years. When they are inevitably made redundant what will they do next?

There will be fewer opportunities to secure comparable roles in similar-sized firms. Maybe they will leave the profession or look for a role in business. On past experience many will be encouraged by friends and family to set up and run their own practice.

There is no doubt that this is becoming easier and easier to do, IN THEORY. The problem though is directly related to the reason these Gen X managers have not made partner in the firms they have worked in for years. To build a successful practice in the future you MUST have sufficient business, marketing and communication skills to attract, secure and retain the sort of clients you want to work with and who will pay you the fees you deserve.

This is not a new phenomenon. Many years ago a firm I was with had a major shakeup. Almost 20% of the partners were ‘let go’ in a well planned ‘overnight’ cull. Why? The firm wanted to become more efficient and to boost profits per partner. This required them to have more staff per partner. Rather than ramping up recruitment, they cut partner numbers.  Most of those who left had previously joined the firm through mergers but had not matched their peers in terms of annual billings.

Even back then it was clear that the firm had more partners than it needed. Since then the firm has avoided promising that partnership is feasible for all experienced, well regarded and capable managers. Being good at your job is not enough. Being well liked by colleagues, partners and clients is not enough. Being on top of your portfolio is not enough.   This is true of many larger firms.  A new non-partner senior role is often available and may be preferred by those who don’t want the added pressure and politics that invariably accompanies being a partner in a professional services firm. Looking forwards however these roles may not have the longevity they once did.

Every firm will be different in terms of specifically what skills, abilities and personal qualities are required to make partner and to hold onto long-term senior non-partner roles.

This is one of the reasons why, in my talks and articles about the future for accountants I stress the need for everyone to develop relevant key business skills.

Many accountants have achieved success in the past due to skills that will be less relevant in the (longer term) future. The point being made by the managing partners with whom I have spoken is specific to a key demographic. That is, people who have been around for some time. Those who have not developed the business finding and building skills to warrant being made a partner. The sooner they start enhancing their key business skills the more chance they will have of achieving success during the remainder of their career – especially if they are made redundant before they want to retire.

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