April 22, 2021

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Meh-be we’ll do something

We’ve talked a few times about what accounting firms should do post-pandemic. If it’s accepted that things will be different after the pandemic, then it stands to reason that how firms operate, serve their clients, etc. will be different, too. But there’s a risk that the intensity of guiding and advising businesses during the pandemic fades into something else. Something meh.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote about this feeling this week, and it seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people:

As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of long-haul Covid, many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic. It hit some of us unprepared as the intense fear and grief of last year faded.

In the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, it’s likely that your brain’s threat detection system — called the amygdala — was on high alert for fight-or-flight. As you learned that masks helped protect us — but package-scrubbing didn’t — you probably developed routines that eased your sense of dread. But the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.

Prof. Grant mentions that giving a name to the emotions we experience is a good way to manage them. So even if you were dropping “languish” before this week, it helps to distinguish depression from burnout from indifference from languishing. Languishing is being indifferent to indifference. Numb to the numbness. It’s dialed-up apathy, and that kinda sounds … worse than those other emotions. You know how 80% of life is showing up? Maybe 5% of that should be carved out for languishing. Languishing isn’t the other 20% where you don’t get out of bed. When you’re languishing, you’re still showing up; you get out of bed and you do stuff. But you don’t remember much of what you did, don’t much care, and are perfectly fine doing the same thing tomorrow. Instead of spiraling down, we spiral in place.

To break out of that feeling, Grant suggests:

carving out daily time to focus on a challenge that matters to you — an interesting project, a worthwhile goal, a meaningful conversation. Sometimes it’s a small step toward rediscovering some of the energy and enthusiasm that you’ve missed during all these months.

It makes sense.
 Still, after running triage on clients for over a year, if folks return to the ol’ accounting, auditing, tax, and such, they’ll be able to sleepwalk through their days. And that sounds pretty appealing sometimes! I don’t blame anyone for wanting to spend a few months coasting. I admit that I’ve maybe been a little too eager to know where the accounting profession goes from here. But I also wouldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to care about what to do next for a while.

Vintage partners

Mandatory retirement age for auditors has been something of a touchy subject within the accounting profession for some time. Big 4 firms require retirement at age 62, which is pretty young since, as Accounting Today points out, that age:

[is] younger than the anticipated retirement age for executives in related roles, board members, audit partners in other countries, and even airline pilots who are responsible for the lives of hundreds of passengers every time they fly a plane.

It’s a little weird because retirement-age partners can pull in hefty fees and have lots of experience, which can be a significant factor in audit quality and career success in general. However, these partners are usually white and male, and as they retire, the demographics improve as the firms focus on a more diverse partnership, something firms are under pressure to do.

Maybe I’m naive, but it seems that any firm could decide to let near-retirement-age partners, auditors or not, stay on a little longer, and still admit more diverse partner classes. Those new partners will need mentors, and the older partners can fill that role. There’d be details to sort out, of course. Maybe new partners would start at lower profit-share, and maybe the phasing out cohort would take home a smaller portion, too. The older partners would spend less time in the field and more time mentoring. Firms that don’t already have a formal mentoring program could start assigning the more seasoned partners with the new partner classes, and so on.

It just seems a little reductive to push out older partners just because that’s the policy they agreed to. Still, they don’t need to kill themselves by doing the work they’ve been doing for 20-ish years. It seems the most valuable thing they can do is share experiences—both good and bad—with their new partners.

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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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