For years now, we here at Going Concern — much like most of the accounting profession at large — have been engaged in dramatic hand-wringing over the possibility of robots edging accountants out of their jobs. And — again, much like the greater profession — we have mostly come to the conclusion that even when technology starts making paper-pushing obsolete, there will still be jobs left for management of said robots. So the possibility of robots rendering your accounting degree worthless as the paper it’s printed on have always been slim to none, even if there’s pressure on the profession to keep up with demand for more well-rounded accounting professionals (here’s a 2018 Journal of Accountancy article on those skills for further reading should you be interested).
Last I wrote about robots taking your job was June 2020, at which time we talked about how AI was, at that point, supposed to create more jobs (2.3 million) than it destroyed (1.8 million), a figure that came from a 2017 Gartner report. It seemed then that while the automation of repetitive tasks (read: your job) has been underway for some time now, it didn’t seem likely that AI would be capable of replacing the technical knowledge of flesh-and-blood human accountants, so long as said accountants could stay on top of said technical knowledge and do the one thing they as a species have struggled to do since Luca Pacioli counted the first beans back in 1472: adapt.
Well as much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news (lie), the New York Times is here to piss all over whatever frail shred of faith you had in things turning out OK.
On Sunday, they published the ominously-titled The Robots Are Coming for Phil in Accounting (sorry, Phil), an article which seems by its title might contain some inside knowledge on how accounting firms and departments are leveraging technology to reduce headcount and therefore increase profit make employees’ lives easier by taking easily automated tasks off their plates.
I’m sure Phil will be relieved to hear that it’s a bit broader than that:
The robots are coming. Not to kill you with lasers, or beat you in chess, or even to ferry you around town in a driverless Uber.
These robots are here to merge purchase orders into columns J and K of next quarter’s revenue forecast, and transfer customer data from the invoicing software to the Oracle database. They are unassuming software programs with names like “Auxiliobits — DataTable To Json String,” and they are becoming the star employees at many American companies.
The trend — quietly building for years, but accelerating to warp speed since the pandemic — goes by the sleepy moniker “robotic process automation.” And it is transforming workplaces at a pace that few outsiders appreciate. Nearly 8 in 10 corporate executives surveyed by Deloitte last year said they had implemented some form of R.P.A. Another 16 percent said they planned to do so within three years.
The following will be especially interesting to those affected by (or hell, even aware of) the numerous layoffs and job cuts that came last year shortly after the Rona pachyderm hit the United States in earnest.
Executives generally spin these bots as being good for everyone, “streamlining operations” while “liberating workers” from mundane and repetitive tasks. But they are also liberating plenty of people from their jobs [emphasis ours]. Independent experts say that major corporate R.P.A. initiatives have been followed by rounds of layoffs, and that cutting costs, not improving workplace conditions, is usually the driving factor behind the decision to automate.
The article goes on to tell us that Rona gave already AI-eager executives “cover” so they can “implement ambitious automation plans they dreamed up long ago.” Sounds like the plot of some discarded Black Mirror episode, but then again doesn’t everything that happens these days?
Those of you already several years into your careers probably don’t realize just how heavily firms rely on AI currently as in this moment right now in hiring. Next time you speak to a 23-year-old, ask them about their hiring experience. I guarantee you for the elder statesmen among us it will be clear that somewhere along the way, human beings have been replaced by technology in this process. This is why you should be polite to your Alexa — one day she might be in charge of hiring. Or at least your closest reference.
So are robots coming for your job? Yeah, more than they were 10 years ago anyway. Look on the bright side: although you may end up automated out of a job, think about the old-school, stick-in-the-mud, stuck-in-their-ways boomers clinging to “how things used to be” (you know, the types who still use “Oriental” to describe people, not rugs). If anyone is going to get run over in the robot revolution it’s those people. The rest of you, well, you’ll adapt.
The entire New York Times article is a recommended read. Unless of course you, like so many, are anxious, wound-up, and living in constant fear of losing your job even though you hate every waking moment of it.