insight magazine

What the Future of Accounting Really Needs

If the accounting profession is to remain relevant to future generations of workers, changes in work-life balance, diversity, and pay are needed now. By Seth Fineberg | Winter 2023

I’ve said this in a multitude of ways, but I think it’s time to spell it all out: If the accounting profession is to thrive, let alone survive, some serious changes need to occur—and in fairly short order.

This is a profession I’ve observed, and thankfully gotten to know closely, for more than two decades. In that time, I witnessed a few major setbacks and milestones: the impact of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, multiple recessions, and the more recent digitalization and automation of the profession, to name a few.

But nothing, in my view, has impacted the profession more than the global pandemic. Any hesitations about automation, cloud utilization, and remote work had to be dealt with head on, because it was the only way work could get done. Firms large and small—even those that felt they couldn’t ever work from home or utilize cloud or automation tools—were forced to reckon with their new reality, which was only compounded by what seemed like a never-ending tax season and a lack of acceptable guidance from the IRS about the employee retention credit and Paycheck Protection Program.

The result? For the first time since I began covering this profession, I saw accountants literally in tears with claims they officially wanted out of accounting altogether. A growing number are simply saying they’ve had enough. It’s understandable that the numbers of accountants entering the profession and still available to do the work are in decline. If we’re going to make accounting a more attractive career to pursue and stay in, I believe there are three things the profession needs to embrace.


The idea of work-life balance has been discussed for years. For professionals who are required to regularly earn continuing professional education credits to retain their credentials, on top of working likely anywhere from 60 to 80 hours per week during the multiple busy seasons throughout the year, balance is a bygone for anyone looking to get ahead. At some point, we have to say “enough.”

Therefore, I believe the concept of work-life balance has to be flipped to life-work balance, which prioritizes people’s time, sanity, and sense of purpose. I’m not suggesting the profession should accept that the needs of clients or companies be ignored, but a pathway to “balance” where both people’s and businesses’ well-being matter. This profession needs to set boundaries and stick to them. Let that be the norm.

Just consider the cyclical nature of what’s accepted (in an almost dystopian rite of passage) as “busy season.”

This cycle of abuse accountants endure year in and year out, to the point at which I’ve seen so many want to leave the profession because they simply can’t take it anymore, has to end.

It’s also time to say “enough” to the expectation that serving bad clients, extra hours, working weekends, and completing the majority of work during predetermined blocks of time is just the way it is. If these things don’t change, the profession will never be attractive to future generations of accountants.


Saying and doing uncomfortable things isn’t necessarily in the DNA of accountants. But, as is the theme of this article, accountants are humans and need to treat themselves—and others—as such. In order for this profession to progress and be one people want to come into, those of us in it now need to help foster a more diverse and inclusive work environment and community.

When I first began covering accounting more than 20 years ago, the number of women in leadership positions was a paltry few, as white males dominated those roles. Calls for this to change were heard and, while there’s still a long way to go to achieve true balance, today there are far more women leaders in the profession than ever before.

When it comes to people of color in leadership roles, that number is still a paltry few and doesn’t begin to reflect the demographics of our country. I believe this profession has to begin to reflect the society it serves if it’s going to be a welcome career choice.

This may be an uncomfortable conversation (for some) to have, particularly for those currently in leadership roles, but we must face the fact that our country has a deep history of not being inclusive or equitable. Allowing people to be their authentic selves at work has become as important as the life-work balance I mentioned above, if not more so.

Collectively, the profession has to do far better than it has and offer more than just lip service to become truly inclusive. People want to work in an environment where they’re seen and judged equally on their merits as professionals.


Finally, it’s time for the profession to have an honest conversation about compensation. Regardless of where you live, starting and even mid-level salaries for accountants simply aren’t high enough to justify one’s investment in education and professional development. Those well established in the profession know that a lucrative career may arise, but students and young professionals have a very hard time seeing when, or if, a payoff awaits. Just look at the starting salaries Robert Half’s 2024 Salary Guide estimates for the roles students and young professionals are commonly hired into:

  • Associate, audit/assurance services: $49,000
  • Tax associate: $52,750
  • Senior associate, audit/assurance services: $57,750
  • Senior tax associate: $67,250

If compensation doesn’t become more competitive with entry-level roles in comparable professions, the number of students pursuing accounting careers will certainly continue to decline.

I’ve seen time and again that the accounting profession can adapt and change when it needs to. Now is another time that it needs to. If this profession is to have a future, that change needs to be driven by those of you in the profession now. You all have the means to inspire change and help redefine what it means to be an accounting professional.

Seth Fineberg is an independent consultant to the accounting profession, working with firms and vendors that serve it. He’s been a journalist and editor for over 30 years, spending most of his career as an editor with Accounting Today and AccountingWEB.


Related Content:

Leave a comment