“For an accountant, the probability of vocational extinction is a whopping 95%."
The starting point for this article was the publication of WTF, a recently released and very readable state of the nation analysis by popular TV pundit and economist Robert Peston.
In it, the left-leaning journalist tries to make sense of all that has happened on the political front in the last two years, primarily focusing on Britain’s decision to leave Europe and its impact on Theresa May’s government particularly in the light of her disastrous decision to call a general election last summer.
He then goes on to consider some connections with the elections of Donald Trump in the United States and Emanuel Macron in France and the populist anti-establishment feelings that led to each of these outcomes.
However, the real focus for those of us who have spent their lives working in the accounting profession and expect to get a few more profitable and enjoyable years in the business prior to retirement, is the quote at the head of this column.
It does not come from the finance director of an angry client that has just had its accounts qualified, nor an individual who has discovered that the tax-saving scheme which came with a guarantee that was not a guarantee has failed, leaving a bill of embarrassingly large proportions before the inevitable interest and penalties.
The statement was actually made by Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist at the Trades Union Congress in November 2015. Apologies for not picking the news up earlier, but while this columnist is happy to read discursive books about how the country is going down the pan at a rate of knots, reports of TUC shindigs have a mysterious tendency to pass him by.
If Mr Haldane is correct, then at some unstated future date, accountancy as a profession will practically disappear without trace. His logic is that almost all of the tasks that are our worthy colleagues carry out could be displaced by dispassionate computers, which will never tire or make the kind of basic errors that drive clients mad.
This inevitably begs a whole series of questions but, at this stage, very few answers. It is already obvious that many parts of our work have changed beyond recognition in the last couple of decades.
Nowadays, much of auditing is computer-based, which provides an indication of how things are likely to develop. Similarly, there cannot be many practices that still prepare tax returns on paper other than in very limited circumstances. Not only is proprietary software very cheap but many of us (and our clients) complete tax returns online using HMRC’s free software.
The same applies to many other aspects of the trade, leaving us all to ponder how we or more pertinently our new recruits will manage to find work as the computerisation of additional tasks takes away more and more jobs.
There are probably at least two areas where human beings will continue to have the edge over technology in the foreseeable future. Whether these eventually comprise a mere 5% of all work or significantly more only time will tell.
Much tax planning and other strategic decision-making could theoretically be handed over to a hard drive but, in reality, there will need to be several generational shifts before human beings in senior positions are willing to accept advice from a machine which will not engage in conversation in preference to a trusted professional.
In addition, the primary duties that partners have carried out since time immemorial really do require human input. Whether it is wining and dining clients, conjuring up fees, dealing with complaints or trying to drum up new business, it is unclear how the soft side of our work could ever be overtaken by lumps of metal or plastic, however brainy.
This then opens up a further area of uncertainty. If the only jobs left in accountancy are those carried out by highly experienced partners who have spent their lives building up knowledge and relationships, how can the profession enable future generations to develop these skills if no junior jobs exist?
Humble readers can come to their own conclusions but thankfully it seems unlikely that the accounting profession will go out of business during my lifetime.