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When age is more than just a number

IF ONLY more of the accountancy profession shared Mark Twain’s view that ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter’.

Perhaps some surprise then, that age discrimination is still rife in a profession which is a million miles away from the aesthetics of the modelling world, where youth reigns supreme.

Yet it seems the distance between them isn’t as far as you’d think.

In recent research commissioned by CareersinAudit.com among more than 2000 accountants, the majority believe ageism is alive and kicking. Hardly something you’d expect among those in professional services. Indeed, nearly half of those aged over 40 felt they had missed out on a job or internal promotion because of they had crossed this age threshold and had been given no reason from their line manager or HR as to why they had failed to make the grade.

Bosses in practice and in industry may be bristling when they hear this. Then again there is a prominent school of thought that says many in the profession prefer to recruit younger professionals because their salary expectations are not as high and they are prepared to put in longer hours, particularly in this tough economic climate. Not right. But some could argue it makes the numbers on their own balance sheet look better.

Perhaps, then, the lure of the younger accountant is so they can ‘mould’ their employees to their requirements, whereas the ‘older’ accountants may not be willing to change the way they work. Another case behind the closed doors could be that the 40+ professionals are not up to date on technology advancements, compared to the more ‘technology-savvy’ twenty and thirty something generation, or have other necessary skills for modern day accountancy.

But this isn’t about creating a duel between the old(er) versus the young accountant. The industry needs to embrace new and recently qualified entrants to the profession. It also needs to make sure those in their ‘middle youth’ and beyond aren’t put out to pasture either.

As a starting point, partners and senior management should be making sure that they or their HR departments scrutinise their equality policies and ensure that all applicants, regardless of age, are given a detailed breakdown of why they were unsuccessful. Transparency is crucial.

Plus, they should take a long considered look at all their training requirements. For the last four years, our research has showed that two thirds of accountants do not believe their company is doing enough to help with their career development and training is really low on the firm’s agenda. But this can’t remain the status quo, particularly when the industry has seen a greater shift to more technically specialised roles and a need for technical skills, largely driven by an increase in regulation and business complexity. If the right training is given to all staff, of all ages, then we could see a different culture emerging and a much fairer playing field for the more experienced accountants.

Increasingly, too, accountants are called in to support important strategic decisions for the business or their clients. There is now a far greater need for the profession to have more softer/business awareness skills and not just core accountancy theory. Many older accountants will have years of valuable experience and can hit the ground running. This shouldn’t be overlooked.

Some fundamental changes have to be made in the profession to ensure ageism is a thing of the past. One can hope that those at the top and those involved in the recruitment process start to the appreciate the value of the older accountant, regardless of what number they are.

Simon Wright is operations director at CareersinAudit.com

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