How to thrive in your 50s
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!
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.
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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.
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