Voices

OK partner: Intergenerational issues in accounting

We may be approaching all-out intergenerational war.

After years of hearing baby boomers blame them for “killing” everything from the traditional family and the housing market to the face-to-face meeting and the partner track, the younger generations have hit back with the most powerful weapon they know: the meme.

In this case, it’s the phrase “OK boomer,” which is being deployed as an all-purpose slap at older folks who complain about the behavior, work ethic, morals, breakfast preferences, etc., of younger people. It has already driven some boomers into frothing rages, and, like all things on the internet, is likely to be repeated so often that it drives even reasonable people batty. At this point, we’re just one or two headlines about “How millennials killed the decimal point” from being Paris in 1968.

As a member of Gen X (or, as I like to call it, the Bitter, Overlooked Generation) I must say that I’m not inclined to try to broker peace between the bigger, more privileged generations — and so I won’t.

Instead, I’ll deploy my generation’s core competencies and make some cutting, sarcastic points about all the other generations, particularly in the context of the accounting profession.

First off, it’s worth noting that “OK boomer” is often credited to Generation Z, the new new generation that’s succeeding the millennials. The millennials aren’t new anymore — many of them are in their thirties, after all, and they make up a third or more of the profession, so it’s time to stop blaming them for wanting to change the way things are done. They’re ingrained in accounting, for now, and the profession needs them too much, just as it’s going to need Gen Z.

Along similar lines, it’s time for the older generations to stop blaming anyone for wanting to change the way things are done. No business practice is immune to improvement, and human capital is too precious these days to mistreat it. There was a time when the profession could get away with telling young accountants to keep their heads down and pay their dues, but that time is past — and good riddance to it. No one should have to put their family or their health or their happiness second to a tax return. And when I say “No one,” I mean no one from any generation. Boomers should be able to enjoy better work-life balance, too.

What’s more, the future is all about change, and no one does change better than the young, whether you’re talking about technology or firm structure or new service offerings. By and large, it’s long past time to listen to younger accountants, rather than complain about them. And while many firms are getting much better about this, it’s still all too common to hear baby boomer accountants complaining about and berating younger staff.

To the younger accountants, and particularly those enjoying the “OK boomer” moment — well, I can’t really blame you. But I’ll throw out some context: Just as you resent having to hear from boomers about how they had to pay their dues, they resent having been forced to pay those dues themselves. And just as you feel unfairly burdened by student loan debt and climate change, boomers felt unfairly burdened by Vietnam and the draft, and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. (Their version of “OK boomer” was “Never trust anyone over 30.”) Every generation resents being stuck cleaning up the previous generation’s messes, and in turn disdains the even-younger cohort that will have to clean up theirs.

That will be worth remembering in 25 or 30 years.

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