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iStock_KPegg_Into the future

How to thrive in your 50s

29th Feb 2016
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Mark Lee explores the options for accountants who are over the age of 50 – in the light of the recent ICAS letter that implied they are over the hill.

If I was still in practice, I too would have been insulted by the recent letter sent by ICAS to members of the Scottish body.

I was shocked when I first read the letter titled “The only constant is change”. It was evidently written by someone with little experience of how older accountants work, what they can do and how easily they adapt to use new technology.

And, despite the title of the letter, the simple fact is that 50-plus accountants have been coping with constant change throughout their careers.

Members of AccountingWEB have already had their say about the letter. So I am not going to comment on it in detail. Instead I will share my thoughts about 50-plus accountants, as I find myself engaging with so many of them.

The stereotypical middle-aged accountant is a myth. Not least because we are all living longer and have more skills, talent and aptitude for technology than some younger people seem to assume. Yes, of course, some older accountants struggle with technology but the ICAS letter sets the bar far too young!

Beyond accountancy

I wasn’t the first trained accountant to move away from practice to choose to do other things in my fifties. And I also wasn’t the last. It happens all the time and it rarely has anything to do with the constant changes that have long affected practitioners.

It was only after I endured redundancy for the second time that I sat back and thought about what I really wanted to do going forward. Until then my career had always seemed to be on an upward trajectory. Would I have become a professional business speaker, mentor and coach in my fifties without that third-party impetus? Sadly, I suspect not.

If only it had happened sooner!

Are there many accountants in their fifties who are running their own practice but who have always wanted to move on to do something else? I doubt it.

Selling up or merging

I read the ICAS letter as a clumsy attempt to encourage 50-plus accountants who run their own practices to sell up or to merge if they want to achieve sustainable growth.

As has already been suggested the author of the letter doesn’t seem to understand those to whom it was addressed. There is a reason that I rarely hear about practice-owners in their fifties selling up and moving on – or merging with another practice.

Most mature accountants are running their own practice because they want to be their own boss. They rarely have dreams to be doing something very different. If that was the case they wouldn’t have started running their own practice in the first place.  

They’re not always happy with the time they spend working in their practice, they don’t always like all of their clients and they may not yet be making as much money as they would like, but selling up is rarely an option. Why? Quite simply because sole-practitioner accounting practices rarely sell for large enough fee multiples for the outgoing accountant to feel comfortable retiring – especially when they are only in their fifties!

Starting your own practice

Let’s turn this around.

I am no longer surprised by the number of mature accountants who start up their own practices. Some have always wanted to do it; some do so after being made redundant. And others do so only when they have given up being able to get a new job.

Invariably those who started with a decent business plan and who do not simply rely on a website and ‘hope’, love what they are doing. It can take a little time but it’s evidently not that hard to build a successful practice if you know what you're doing.

I have lost track of how often 50-something accountants tell me that they wish they had started their own practice sooner.

One key tip I would share with anyone over 50 (and indeed anyone else) looking to set up their own practice. While you could buy into a franchise, never assume that someone else will generate enough business and clients for you. A website (whether run by the franchise or yourself) can secure leads for you but that’s rarely enough. Invariably it will still be down to you to convert those leads into clients. Never assume that you can build a practice unless you are already, or can become, effective at helping people understand why they should choose you as their accountant.

The next stage of one’s career

When I qualified as an accountant the normal retirement age for partners was around 60. Some went sooner and some stayed longer but that did seem to be the average age at which the older partners left larger partnerships. 

Although many things have changed over the years I suspect that few of the larger firms have many partners over the age of 60 today. And only a small minority of older partners take their clients with them when they leave even if they start their own practice after they ‘retire’.

Many of the rest hope to pick up some non-exec roles and consultancy work. A few invest in new businesses, get (more) involved in charity work or pursue their hobbies. There’s that ‘hope’ word again. Many people become disillusioned by how tough it is to secure well paid non-exec roles and recurring consultancy work. If this appeals, ensure you do your research. It is obviously easier to secure such roles and work with your existing clients than with strangers.

It’s an age thing

There is much less pressure to leave smaller firms as you get older and I know many sole practitioners who plan to continue running their own practice until they reach their mid-seventies. And why not?

The clear message is that, contrary to a popular myth, we’re not over the hill when we’re over 50, or even over 60.

Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB and helps individual accountants who want to be more successful in their practice or career. 


Replies (16)

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By johnjenkins
29th Feb 2016 16:16

Great article. Mark.

Being 67 and still love the business, I can relate to the problems and high points of age.

I have only one problem and that is HMRC. They are low on technology where they should be high and high where they should be low. E-mails and quarterly accounts are two that spring to mind. HMRC don't want to use e-mails (not really high tech these days) yet they think business have apps that will send quarterly accounts at a flick of a button. HMRC are a contradiction and cause more problems than they should. The answer is to let us Accountants look after the admin and they investigate and collect.

Although I have seen a lot of changes the basics are still the same. Online banking yet they still take 3 days to clear a cheque. The problem we are going to have is that low tech business will not be catered for in a few years as HMRC use high tech to force one man bands onto PAYE. When that happens I will sell up.

Thanks (4)
Replying to stacey03:
By Francois Badenhorst
29th Feb 2016 16:57

That's a very insightful comment

Thanks for that, John. It's always interesting for me to read insightful comments like this from experienced accountants.

 And, yes, great piece Mark!

Thanks (2)
Chris M
By mr. mischief
01st Mar 2016 09:20

Dum spiro spero

While I breathe I hope!  Just turned 50 and along with my business doing really well I shot my first ever sub-par round of golf last year, having played the game since I was 12.

There is life in us old dogs yet.

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By redboam
01st Mar 2016 09:45


So some idiot in ICAS suggests that anyone possessing considerable experience acquired over many years qualifies as being "over the hill." It sounds to me like the author of such nonsense was over the hill before he or she ever got started.

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By AFAccountant
01st Mar 2016 12:02

I'm mature?

Well, I had seriously never considered myself as "mature" until reading this.  The nerve!  I feel I am only just approaching my professional prime, having been in practice for many years.  Last year I won an award for Cloud Accounting, have launched a new company which has created software for the smallest businesses to cope with the new DTA, I am on the HMRC panel shaping the DTA and I find that I am thriving on the changes and the opportunities that new technology is creating. 

Actually, I haven't found many 'youngsters' who can stand the pace!  I find that many my age are bemoaning the 'youth of today' and how easily distracted they are with an unnerving lack of concentration and what appears to be an inherent lazy attitude.

I see my generation as the go-getters. Jolly poor show by the ICAS and if I was a member I would be busy writing my resignation. 


Thanks (1)
By KateR
01st Mar 2016 12:08

Over the hill at 50?

Where do I start to contradict that myth? Perhaps by pointing out to these young things that they might look at things differently when the government have pushed up retirement age to 68, 70 or more. Will they feel over the hill at 50 with another 20 years of work looming? Those of us who are 50+  (I'm not going to give my actual age away) have actually coped with more change in technology than these youngsters will probably ever do. Some will have started their careers using only adding machines or just seen the start of the calculator, never mind computers and smart phones. Mostly we have embraced the changes with relish, only the arthritis making our fingers less nimble causes us to find some of technology difficult, nothing wrong with our mental capacity. As @johnjenkins said our main problem is HMRC. The lack of understanding of how small businesses work and how technology should be used is depressing.

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By rota2
01st Mar 2016 12:46

Well said Mark !

I started my own full time practice at age 53 and am one of those accountants who told Mark I wished it was 20 years earlier. However, I may not have had quite enough experience back then.

The internet has made it much easier to start a practice, including Accountingweb, which I started reading long ago and inspired me.


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By Val J Gill
01st Mar 2016 12:47

Over the hill at 50

I'm sure my clients don't see me in that light as they bring along new clients on a regular basis despite my being mid 60s. I'm just starting to use cloud based technology (having given it a fair while so any issues should have been ironed out) and have found my way around the auto enrolment recently my first client staging last month so feel I am up for any innovations whether forced on us by HMRC or taken up through choice.

Clients appreciate the fact that you have been around for a long time and as a result have the experience to advise from a knowledgeable position. I may not be a computer whiz kid but I'm the practice expert when it comes to the programs we use and I value the technology in the same way a craftsman values his tools.

Thanks (2)
By raybackler
01st Mar 2016 14:07

63 and going strong

When I got to 50 the company that I was working for got taken over twice within six months and jobs started leaking, so I decided to take the plunge and go back to my accounting roots.  I wanted to be in control of my own destiny, rather then being flung on to the jobs market where there is no age discrimination, (honest).

I was looking for a point of difference with the typical high street practice and came across the emerging cloud systems market in 2004, which was all I needed.  Constantly looking for new technology to stay ahead of the game and constantly meeting the challenges arising from  keeping up to date with each change thrust upon the profession have required a dynamism that by all accounts shouldn't exist once you get to 50.

How wrong can ICAS be?  Very very wrong and it is a wonderful article that Mark has written exposing such bias from those who should be working with their members rather than putting them prematurely out to grass.

Thanks (1)
By 68fw
01st Mar 2016 13:54

and Mr Wallace Hartley played on...


Reached 54 last year and graciously concede I am all but done... having semi retired at 48.

(For me) it was the unprecedented scope and accelerating rate of change, dictated by a dehumanizing bureaucracy which, I know, will lead us all... not to the garden of eden, but to an iron cage, number: nineteen eighty four.






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By kirstiej
01st Mar 2016 19:50

I think for most people the impetus to retiring and handing on to a younger generation would be a sudden windfall.  However, as that young chap "Lunchmoney Lewis" sings "I got bills I gotta pay" and "I got mouths I gotta feed".

I'm not quite 50 yet, but like many people of my generation, I will still have children at school when I am 50.    Is the writer of the letter aware that final salary pensions ended quite a few years ago? (But money purchase schemes are so much easier to account for! hooray!)


Thanks (1)
By AndrewV12
02nd Mar 2016 09:30

Don't worry

Some 23 year old pin head, straight  out of uni wrote it.

Thanks (1)
By North East Accountant
02nd Mar 2016 20:10

Brain Surgery

If we were ever in the unfortunate position of needing brain surgery would you prefer A or B;


A) the whizz kid age 27 year old who knows computers like the back of his hand 

B) the aged 62 with 35 plus years experience in the game.


Thanks (1)
By 68fw
03rd Mar 2016 09:06

brain surgery?

(my) experience suggests most will opt for:

C) the Cheapest butcher.

...and the age & experience litmus test? The average age of a FTSE CEO is around 49.

Desperately sorry... the trend is for youth not age...

Thanks (1)
Replying to Matrix:
By North East Accountant
03rd Mar 2016 09:59

C indeed

68fw wrote:

(my) experience suggests most will opt for:

C) the Cheapest butcher.

...and the age & experience litmus test? The average age of a FTSE CEO is around 49.

Desperately sorry... the trend is for youth not age...

your right most will go for C, never thought of that.

No worries for me yet then, 68fw, as I'm only 44, with 26 years experience so will aim to pack up by age 49!


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By kirstiej
03rd Mar 2016 13:20

If you are a high profile CEO you will probably have built up enough wealth to make retirement appealing.

Equally, getting to grips with auto enrolment isn't exactly brain surgery. Small business owners are expected to comply whether or not they have outside help.

I think most people find that technology makes accounting easier. As somebody who started work in the late 80's my mind boggles at the idea that accounting was once done without the aid of even a calculator. Change may have its challenges, but it would be far harder to change back.

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