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November 22, 2022

Congratulations, Public Accountants, the Reality of Your Miserable Career Made the Mainstream

This year will mark 15 long, boring, excruciating years I have spent circling the periphery of the accounting industry like a vulture waiting for a warm body to drop so I can get a nice carcass to gnaw on. Don’t get me wrong, I love it here. It’s not where I thought I’d end up in life but I consider it an honor to stand just at the edge with a virtual notebook in hand observing you all in your natural habitat while Sir David Attenborough’s voice plays in my head. Here, we observe the public accountant as she performs her intricate feeding ritual, leaning in for a piece of cold cheese pizza given to her by the alpha of her pack in lieu of a real salary. I’m joking but how fun would that be if I could hire him to narrate my thoughts as I scroll my thumb numb on r/accounting.

Wait, I was going somewhere with that thought. Oh, right. To outside observers, accounting is a recession-proof, respected, well-paid white-collar industry where people who love math thrive, gleefully crunching numbers and doing taxes. You, I, and probably even my cat know that’s far from the reality. Although there is no shortage of publicly-available testimony on the reality of working in public accounting (Reddit, Fishbowl, niche accounting industry gossip websites with open comment sections *ahem*), civilians really have no idea what it’s like for those in the trenches. Perhaps they don’t care. I mean why would some truck driver in Nebraska download Fishbowl to find out what’s going on behind the scenes at a Big 4 firm? The mainstream remains woefully — and perhaps deliberately — ignorant of your struggles. Until now.

Elizabeth Lopatto at The Verge recently jumped into the murky depths of our little corner of the professional services pool and has officially put everything out there. I mean everything.

Her investigation began as all good investigations of the early 21st century do — by asking Reddit for their input:

Hello, numerate friends! I am a reporter with The Verge named Elizabeth Lopatto, and I’ve been lurking in your subreddit for a minute. I’ve seen a lot of frustration and burnout here, people posting about quitting their jobs or wanting to quit. I’d love to talk with you about it — one of my big interests is the relationship between real-world money and the internet. I’d like to know if what’s going on here is representative for accounting at large, how the job market is treating you, and what the scale of accounting’s Great Resignation is. I also wonder what that means for your busy season.

The resulting article is more than 2,000 words of brutal honesty. Something tells me the firms won’t be co-opting any of these quotes for shiny recruitment brochures anytime soon.

Browsing r/Accounting, two things become apparent: first, we are entering what accountants call “busy season,” and second, a lot of public accountants are triumphantly quitting. In one recent post, titled “Put in my notice, I am fleeing public accounting baby!!,” commenters congratulate the poster on their escape. “I think I am about to be done,” reads another post. “When is the best time to bail from PA?” asks a third.

The Great Resignation has come for accounting, and public accountants — people who help many clients prepare documents, as opposed to the internal accountants at a specific firm who work only on that firm’s financials — have been feeling the pain. In a normal pre-pandemic year, about 15 percent of staff leaves public accounting firms below the Big Four, which are Ernst & Young (EY), PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Deloitte, and KPMG. While there isn’t yet any hard data, turnover seems higher, says Michael Platt of Inside Public Accounting, who is in the middle of doing surveys for the 2021 calendar year. “Everybody we’ve talked to said that their turnover rates in the last couple of months have been significantly different than in previous years,” Platt says.

Public accounting has always been a difficult job. Many young accountants are recruited as undergraduates. They go into the field understanding that they will work long hours during “busy season,” when most companies and people file their taxes, which begins in January and ends in April. (There is a secondary busy season in the fall when there’s another tax deadline.) Some of the accountants I spoke to explained that 70- or 80-hour weeks were the norm during the busy season. Those hours strain people’s mental health and relationships.

And look! She even snagged some memes!

via r/accounting (I mean duh of course it is)

Sadly r/accounting’s beloved black tar heroin joke did not get a mention, though the often-necessary pharmaceutical uppers sure did:

On r/Accounting, users are already posting memes about busy season. Some users swapped tips about what to bring to the office to make the late nights comfortable if the heat shuts off: blankets, space heaters, electric heating pads. There are several posts with a general theme of “wow, you guys were not exaggerating about busy season.” In response to an inquiry about how to stay in shape during busy season, one person wrote about a diet of Adderall, water, and junk food, while another chimed in, “Vyvanse and protein shakes.” A third suggested busy season was the best time to be on a diet; a fourth said they were too stressed to eat.

There’s also some good post-publication discussion of the piece over at — you guessed it — Reddit.

If you don’t keep up with media other than AICPA press releases and your favorite unprofessional accounting rag (*cough*), The Verge is a Vox publication with massive reach, so it’s safe to say public accounting’s dirty little secret is no longer limited to closets audit rooms at the client site and the bathroom stalls of fancy downtown office buildings in which early-career public accountants do their crying (or did before the pandemic, anyway).

I suggest giving the whole thing a read and forwarding to the nearest non-accountant friend who complains that you never seem to have any time to hang out next time they try to berate you for never being around. Maybe they’ll finally understand. Probably not but hey, you tried.

OVERTAXED Busy season is here — but some public accountants aren’t [The Verge]

Photo by Hasan Albari from Pexels

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7 Comments

  1. It is certainly a miserable career, but after 43 years I have gone part-time hourly. Now they won’t want me to work over 40 hours because they will have pay time and a half. Not a bad gig now.

  2. I wonder why the author is so nasty. It probably has more to do with their character and personal issues than with public accounting. The articles keep getting more and more nasty. I honestly hope the author is okay and finds something better to do with their time, because they clearly have some personal issues going on.

  3. If you think accounting is bad, talk to the medical professionals. I have come across 3 MDs who left the medical profession to become, yup you guessed it, a CPA…. and that was pre-pandemic. Perhaps the negative posts represent a generation that has had too much “handed to them” and just don’t want to work.

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