Although the show ended seven years ago (yeesh, where has the time gone?), I regularly find myself binge-watching Mad Men, sometimes for nostalgia, sometimes for soothing background noise, sometimes least of all in hopes I’ll catch some small detail missed in my previous 20 rewatches left there like a pretty striped Easter egg rotting behind a bush come May. One of my favorite storylines is in the final season when a computer — then a giant, hulking machine with less power than the device you’re currently reading this on — shows up at SC&P offices and proceeds to drive everyone but Harry Crane a little insane. Anyone remember that old movie The Gods Must Be Crazy about some remote tribe in Africa finding a soda bottle tossed from an airplane and thinking it’s a gift from the deities above? It’s sort of like that, just with suits and copious amounts of alcohol.
I bring this up because whenever I read an article about how automation will put accountants out of a job I think about that episode. Jim Cutler might have liked to lighten the firm’s payroll by letting the computer do the work of dozens of people but really the computer’s purpose was as a complement to the various cogs in the advertising machine. A computer — especially a 60s-era one filling up an entire room — could not replace creative. At best, it could maybe spit out some figures that could then be flung at clients to justify the firm’s fees. Nifty, sure, but humans still needed to service that end of things.
Here we are 60 years later (AGAIN, where has the time gone??) and for all the fancy things our now-pocket sized computers can do, they still can’t replace corporeal flesh and blood judgment (you, that refers to you). I do some AI work on the side when I’m not writing drivel for this esteemed website and let me tell you, for as smart as it is, it’s pretty dumb a lot of the time. Just visit r/aifreakout and you can see what I mean. Here are a few recent examples:
West Virginia moai family relaxing on their deep woods couch (colorized 2022)
I’m sorry I should have put a trigger warning on that.
Oh hey isn’t that a meme?
Sure, some AI is pretty damn good. Especially the stuff us plebs don’t get to use. But still, someone — a person, that is — has to make it that way. For now, we haven’t gotten to the point where the AI makes the AI and then all hell breaks loose. OH WAIT…actually… you know what, never mind.
Over the years we here at Going Concern are as guilty as anyone of stoking the fires of the accounting industry robot panic, as recently as last year actually. The consensus for the moment seems to be that while automation has replaced some busy work, it is not putting any of you out of a job any time soon. If it could, firms would not be screaming about talent shortages while Barry Melancon runs back and forth with his hair on fire crying about how no one wants to be a CPA anymore.
So that’s why when I saw this comment making the rounds in accounting spaces (OK, it was Reddit), I figured it worthwhile to dust off the ole robot scare and acknowledge just how wrong this person is.
I’m imagining their faces as we speak and I assure you, sir or ma’am, it is the same emotionless stare it has always been. Like this aptly-named Neutral Face emoji: 😐
Trust me, if firms could replace you, they would. As reluctant as the accounting profession is to embrace technology and do anything other than what they did last year, I have no doubt that if there were a feasible way to swap out humans with all their salaries and sick days and inability to work 168 hours a week (ugh lazy millennials amirite) with automation they would do it in a heartbeat. They would react to the talent problem with indifference at best and contempt at worst, seeing resignations as a relief rather than a burden since every leaver means less salary, no severance, not bothering with pre-firing PiPs, and not having to have those awkward “you’re fired” conversations. The profession’s constant anxiety over the talent problem tells us that they simply don’t have the option to replace the people they are so desperately trying to recruit and retain.
It’s funny, for years “they” (Firm leaders? Profession authorities? Drivel-spewing accounting blog writers? Idk who exactly “they” is but whatever) have been threatening that you will get automated out of a job, and yet here we are watching firms scramble to keep the talent they have and secure the fresh talent they can while fewer and fewer people are even considering accounting as a major. I’d say your job is pretty safe for now. If you want to continue doing it, that is. And if you don’t, well, I guess firms are going to make serious investments in technology that might eventually come close to doing whatever it is you do.
Consider this your yearly update on where we’re at with that whole automation thing. See you again in a year when we write the same article about how this isn’t happening any time soon just with different words unless the content robots get good enough to write it for us in the meantime.
Photo by Tara Winstead