By the end of the decade, millennials will make up half of the global workforce.
This is the generation shaped by the advent of the internet, the first cohort to have come of age with smartphones in their hands. What do they have to show for all of their access to information? Not much more than selfies and student debt — if you believe the headlines.
In 2013, one cover Time Magazine cover dubbed millennials the “me me me generation.” The accompanying cover story went on to accuse them of “narcissism, materialism and technology addiction”. While this is hardly a fair assessment, it’s obvious there are cultural differences between millennials and the older generations. As more young adults make their way into the world of employment, long-established industries should be prepared for a shake-up.
Daring digital natives
The accountancy field has been bracing for a digital disruption for years. An Oxford University study from 2013 revealed that 47 percent of all jobs are open to automation in the next two decades, and accountants are second only to telemarketers when it comes to feeling the effects of computerisation. While statistics like these might make older accountants nostalgic for the days of paper ledgers, millennial accountants are getting ready to embrace the future.
Alex Falcon-Huerta, CEO of cloud accounting firm Soaring Falcon, and a millennial herself, believes that automating daily bookkeeping tasks will open up new opportunities for accountants to connect with clients. Many accounting software programmes crunch numbers in real-time, allowing accountants to keep a closer eye on cash flow and expenses. “Removing the processing means we can understand the client’s business in more detail and look at data on a regular basis rather than at the end of the year,” she explains.
Last year, Microsoft surveyed 1,000 millennials and found that 93 percent believed access to the right technology was important when choosing an employer. Providing young employees with the right tools doesn’t just increase their productivity — it also means that they can share their knowledge with clients and customers. For Falcon-Huerta, being a digital native means being comfortable enough to find tech-based solutions to her clients’ workflow woes.
“If a client says to me ‘I’m really fed up with doing credit control and it’s taking me ages to write up my quotes’, I know what products I can implement straight away,” she says. “Even though the client may not be tech-savvy themselves, we’re confident enough to say ‘we can help you’.”
Putting flexibility first
Millennials in accounting aren’t just going to force changes in the tools used by the industry — they’re also going to demand greater flexibility in how they work. In the era of instant communication, sitting at a desk in an office from nine to five all day is far from essential. Introducing flexible start times and working locations could make all the difference to the productivity of millennial staff members. In fact, Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey, which polled almost 7,700 millennials from 29 countries, found that 51 percent expected that productivity at their organisations would increase if employees were permitted to work outside of their primary office location.
“I offer flexible hours and remote working,” says Falcon-Huerta. “We go to client premises, or we go to London for the day, or to a coffee shop. Everyone has a laptop and a mobile phone provided, which wouldn’t necessarily happen in a traditional accounting firm because we’re entirely tech-based and cloud-based.”
The right technology is vital to the success of flexible working schemes. After all, it’s a bit inconvenient to have to carry a file full of papers to your local cafe. To an accounting industry veteran, it might sound like young employees are going to demand massive capital outlays on IT equipment while making themselves scarce around the office. But that isn’t the right way to look at it.
“We grew up with technology, we’re not afraid of it,” Falcon-Huerta explains. “This means that we’re more inclined to want to get to know products that are going to make our lives easier, or our clients’ lives easier, and implement them straight away.”
Millennials entering the workforce will have to lead older generations in the adoption of new technologies and ways of working. This is especially true in the accounting industry, where legacy systems are being phased out in favour of cloud-based tools. Cross-generational collaboration will ultimately drive innovation in accounting — and increasingly it will be impatient millennials behind the wheel.
Jesse Onslow Norton is a writer, editor and communications consultant at Flibl. A former coder, his editorial work focuses on fintech, digital transformation, policy and regulation. His clients include corporations, governments, startups and SMEs from across the world. Follow him on Twitter @JesseOnslow.