February 9, 2024

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Accounting’s culture of busyness

It’s been about 15 years since I’ve worked as an accountant, and my career as a CPA specifically was short, only 5 ½ years. I have already worked at Gusto longer than I worked as a CPA. But one thing that seems to hold up pretty well is that my experience working as a CPA from late 2002 to late 2008 is not meaningfully different from the experience that accountants have now, and that’s kinda sad.

It’s February 2024, and accounting firms all over the country have started up another busy season. This means extra stress from long working hours, less sleep, working on the weekend, taking on more clients, more responsibility, and time away from family and friends (even when they might be in the next room). Accounting has sold itself on the idea of the busy season and everything that comes with it so long that it’s part of the culture. You’ll see a lot of the profession’s leaders revise this as “commitment to clients” or some other hackneyed phrase, but the fact remains that accounting can’t quit deadlines, can’t quit busy season, can’t quit busy. “This is what we do.” 

As Anne Helen Peterson wrote in a recent essay, “Right now, busyness functions as passive-aggressive performance of worth,” and “a shield” and that “It’s defensive and brittle and terrified. It’s lonely; it dissembles. It’s also profoundly wearying — and yet it’s somehow addictive, too.” 

Every word of that applies to the accounting profession. And if you’ve been tying your self-worth to your work and your busyness for years or decades or for so long you can’t remember, it might be time to revisit this. Along with Peterson’s essay, Blake Oliver’s arguments against mandatory Busy Season Saturdays are exactly what all accountants need to read and think about before it’s too late.

I mean, let’s be honest, it’s probably already too late for some of you. At least this year.  

But whether accounting firms actually have to endure a busy season at all is something that I’ve wondered about a lot. In fact, I’ve argued it should go in the opposite direction—forget about mandatory Saturdays; what about mandatory no-Fridays? These ideas aren’t really that crazy. Desperate times, desperate measures, etc.

But the idea that things can’t change, that accountants are destined to go through this year after year, is something that the profession seems addicted to, too. What would accountants do if they didn’t have to get keyed up year after year? They’d probably still be busy, but at least more of them would be busy on their own terms rather than some decades-old notion that “This is what we do.”

Reminder: How we file our tax returns is dumb and it has nothing to do with the IRS

It’s tax season, so naturally, the scapegoating and scaremongering of the Internal Revenue Service is more or less in full swing. Don’t believe me? Here’s someone—in the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, of course—telling you to beware of e-filing which the vast majority of us use. Presumably not satire.

Here’s a choice selection:

The IRS works with a third-party vendor, ID.me, to verify taxpayers’ identities. Registering with ID.me is a prerequisite to obtaining an IRS online account or using the new IRS Direct File tax program. Taxpayers must submit copies of their Social Security cards or employer identification numbers and other documents to ID.me as proof of identity. I advise my clients not to use ID.me because it is a private database of personal information. My clients have no control over it and must trust that it won’t be hacked.

Oh, “a private database of personal information,” you say? That we “have no control over”? And “trust that it won’t be hacked”? You mean like virtually every other business that everyone interacts with every day all the time? 

I guess the alternative is to go back to preparing all these tax returns, including the math, by hand. Then we’ll send them in via carrier pigeon. Seems pretty obvious, actually.

Anyway, if you or someone in your orbit are still frustrated with our tax system, and would actually like to understand why our system for filing tax returns is so terrible, then a new video from the New York Times is all you need. I can’t embed it here, sadly, but this is part of the blurb accompanying the video:

Yes, it should be easy to file taxes. And yes, it should be free. That’s how it works in the rest of the developed world, and it could very easily work that way here, too. It is absurd that America’s tax system is so antiquated and complicated that most people must pay someone else to help them pay the government.

Every US president going back to Ronald Reagan has talked about making filing income tax returns easier and free for the vast majority of Americans. We could do this and accountants everywhere would still have plenty of work to do. These are tax returns that most CPAs don’t do. The profession will not implode if we were able to figure this out. 

Not to mention that tens of millions of people would be able to use the money they currently spend preparing taxes on something—anything—else far more satisfying or productive. 

But maybe not on a Wall Street Journal subscription.

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Caleb Newquist Caleb is Editor-at-Large at Gusto. In 2009, he became the founding editor of Going Concern, the one-of-a-kind voice on the accounting profession, serving in the role for 9 years. Prior to Going Concern, Caleb worked as a CPA for nearly 6 years in New York and Denver. He lives in Denver with his wife, two daughters, and two cats.
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