Printer Friendly

Balancing act: how the generations handle work/life balance.

Old gladiators facing young lions is how some might describe the struggle between the generations. The battle only gets more complicated when the two sides circle each other over the issue of work/life balance. For some, self sacrifice, or "paying your dues," through late nights and weekends at the office is just part of joining the accounting profession. Younger generations wonder, however, whether it is worth sacrificing family and a personal life for the chance to be the last one standing in a highly competitive arena.


Things aren't what they used to be. Technology has created a 24-hour workday. New compliance regulations have spiked the demand for auditors and experienced CPAs. Delayed retirements mean an ever wider range of ages have to find a way to work together.

To get to the bottom of these issues, Catalyst editorial staff assembled a group of Ohio Society members to discuss work/life balance amidst a cross-generational work force.


Jerry Esselstein, CPA

Jerry Esselstein Consulting

A senior level accounting professional, Jerry has more than 30 years of experience in public accounting and industry. He currently focuses on business advisory services and project management.


The Participants

Julie Corrigan, CPA

Tax manager, Plante & Moran

Julie's 20-plus-year career in government and public accounting is currently focused on state and local tax consulting.


Paul Etzler, CPA

Controller, Skoda Minotti and Company

Paul brings more than 15 years of service in a variety of public accounting firms and industries.


Frank Festi, CPA

Partner, Rea & Associates

Frank has 30 years of experience with the firm. He is currently focused on tax and business consulting.


Bob Richardson, CPA

Financial Inventory Manager Consumer Group, Sherwin Williams Company

Bob has three decades of experience in a variety of corporate auditing and accounting positions.


Paul Weisinger, CPA/ABV, CVA

Supervisor, Walthall Drake and Wallace LLP, CPAs

Paul's 11 years of experience includes government and public accounting. Paul is responsible for engagement planning and supervision, staff training and business development.


Esselstein: Do you feel you work as much as other people in your firm? Are the workloads fair?

Weisinger: Everyone at our firm pulls their weight, though not everyone has the same type of work.

Esselstein: Do those above you perceive you as working as hard as they worked when they were your age?

Weisinger: I would say yes. My firm values work ethic, not work obsession--there is a difference. If your work is good, you're going to shine. My firm definitely lets us know that we've done a good job.

Esselstein: Frank, are there people at your office who are work obsessed?

Festi: I think members of the older generation are perceived as workaholics. For a lot of them, work gives meaning to their lives; it is aligned with their passions.

Esselstein: They'd rather work than go home?

Festi: Well, it's a large part of their everyday lives. I don't know if they would say they live to work. It's just that they enjoy what they are doing and the people they're associated with.

Esselstein: Work obsessed, I like that term versus workaholic.

Weisinger: Workaholic has such a negative connotation. There has to be a balance and that balance is good work ethic. That's what we are striving toward.

Etzler: I agree. I think for the most part partners in public accounting or CEOs in industry perceive that they work harder than anyone else. And it appears that a lot of time they do.

When I first started with the firm, one of our managing partners said in passing that there isn't a time when he doesn't think about work. He wasn't saying that as an expression. He honestly thought about work 24 hours a day. Now, he still had a personal life and a family, but his perception was that if others aren't doing the same thing, then how are they helping the firm?

When I went back into public accounting, I felt the need to leave my cell phone on 24 hours a day. That's where there is a generation gap. The staff will ask me when they have to work 55 hours a week. Even the really strong performers ask this. To me, it isn't a matter of "have to." You know when you need to put in that extra effort. At the partner level, it is 24 hours a day.


Richardson: I think there was a time when people were work obsessed because they saw management doing it. They wanted to imitate what management was doing. However, over time they realized that what they produced was more important than how many hours they put in.

It used to be about face time. If your boss was at the office, you were there too--no matter what. We had a manager who would come in on Saturdays and do desk checks. If you weren't there, he'd ask you on Monday where you were.

The company has since changed for two reasons:

1) Technology allows us to do more with fewer people.

2) Gen X and Gen Y don't want to work 60-70 hours a week. They will do it for short periods of time, such as busy season and month-end closings, but not as a lifestyle. Otherwise, they'll just leave the company or the accounting profession.

Corrigan: It's not that Boomers had it harder, it was just different times and took longer to do things. The spreadsheets and tax returns were all done manually. Now it doesn't take as long to do things because of technology and best practices.

Esselstein: With technology, you can now work 24/7. You really can't get away from it. E-mail, voicemail, computers, checking in ...

Corrigan: If you are in the business of client service, then yes, you need to be available 24/7. If you are at a staff or senior level, it is good to always be available to the senior partner because you want to be on his or her jobs. Let's hope the motivation stems from the eagerness and hunger of these young folks to learn versus the negative concept of "paying their dues."

Weisinger: E-mail and voicemail are all just tools that we can use to become more efficient. It's all about working smarter, not harder. I prefer someone who can get the same product(s) out in eight hours instead of 10, but I know that same person is thinking, "I need to be here for people to see me." People need to have a life outside of work to have a proper balance and be respected. This is not only important for sanity reasons, but for practice development as well. Widening your social circle grows your network of contacts.

Etzler: Before, CPAs would work 14 hours a day for six straight months, but it was doing a lot of bookkeeping. In that 14-hour day, six hours were spent behind a closed door figuring numbers. There wasn't as much stress every minute.

With technology, an audit that used to take 200 hours now takes 50, but it is at a much faster pace. If you have this additional stress do you need additional time to wind down? If you can get 12 hours of work done in eight hours, you may need those extra four hours to relax and get your wits together, maybe read a book, so you can come back to work the next day and work another productive eight hours.

Festi: I think our profession has come a long way. We are a service profession that sells time. Whenever you sell time, the temptation is to create more hours. However, with technology, things that used to take a long time don't.

We need to move toward more of a value billing structure. When we emphasize chargeable hours, we get chargeable hours, not necessarily billable hours. The emphasis has to be on the service; getting the client's product out whether it's a tax return or financial statement.

Right now we are sprinting more than marathon running. Everyone needs a balance. As Covey says; we need to "sharpen the blades." That means something different to everyone.

I've noticed that the Xers are more protective of their weekends. It's not that they aren't willing to put in the hours, it's just they want a clearer separation of business life and personal life. Some of us Boomers are accustomed to meeting with the associates on Saturday mornings. Well, the Xers don't necessarily want to meet on a Saturday morning. They would much rather meet during the week, either early in the morning or in the evening.

Richardson: I agree. They don't mind putting in hours, but they don't want those hours to be the same all year. If a special project comes in, they'll put in the hours, but they'd rather have Saturdays off--that's their time. They'll work a little extra during the day, but they don't want their personal time divided up.

Festi: The nice thing about technology is you can go home, see your children's events at school, put the young kids to bed at night, and then go to your computer and wrap up a review or something. The traditional workday has become a thing of the past.

Etzler: I agree. A lot of Xers will work as many hours as are required during the week, but want to be left alone on the weekends. I get a number of e-mails on Sunday nights at eight o'clock while I'm still watching football. Does that make me less responsive to my clients or my colleagues? I don't know. That's a tough question. What if you're not available 24 hours a day, but you put in 50 billable hours and deliver quality service to the client? Can you turn it off?

Corrigan: I think times have changed. Before, to get the better jobs you were encouraged to be on call 24/7. I think the profession is kinder and gentler with that now. Companies want to make these top 100 lists for work/life balance and they understand that personal time is very important.

Esselstein: The Xers, do they contribute as much as when you were their age? Do they have the right attitude?

Corrigan: A lot of them do, at least the ones I work with. Their work ethic is still very important and valued.

Festi: Xers can be prolific producers. They really embrace and leverage technology to get a lot accomplished in less time.

Esselstein: That's not good when you bill by the hour.

Festi: We have to transition to value billing. Fortunately, we have a benchmark of what we billed the year before.

Richardson: At the end of the day, have you reaped more benefit with your Xers than your Boomers? I think the Xers have brought a lot to the table as far as technology. The Xers I work with get a lot done in a shorter period of time, and move on to the next project. That's a great benefit.

Weisinger: At our firm, we encourage recent graduates and new hires to find new ways to do things. Every year we have a new software package or upgrade. The new employees find every little detail first. We encourage them to tell others so we can relay that information to the rest of the firm. We are leveraging their knowledge because they are so computer savvy.

Esselstein: As Paul Weisinger mentioned earlier, by working smarter, faster and more efficiently, are we just creating more pressure?

All: Yes.

Esselstein: Is the pyramid wider? Do we have more staff working, or is the work going up to higher levels in the profession? Do we have more drones or more intellect at the lower levels?

Festi: I don't believe that you have any partners who aren't working partners anymore. The profession has restructured, but it's still a pyramid structure.

Etzler: It seems to be a little more top heavy, with more managers and partners working longer hours than staff and seniors. There is a perception that the government sector is taking a lot of staff and senior level people because public accounting requires many hours. People want that work/life balance.

There are a lot of partners who aren't retiring, they are working. Once you get to the manager position, you want to stay in public accounting for the most part. However, I think we'll see a lot more turnover in the Y generation, which means less turnover at the top. As a result, a lot of partners are doing work they didn't do five years ago.

Richardson: I have a question for the public accounting folks. Are you relying on your clients' work papers and your clients' staff to help you get your job done or is it still about generating as many billable hours as possible?

Corrigan: Well to keep the costs down and the budget in line, we do rely on our clients. No matter what, budgets are always an issue. Whatever you budget, double it.

Festi: Some of that depends on the product or the size of the client.

Richardson: Are you expecting more hours of client support, less, or about the same?

Corrigan: I'm not sure if it is increasing or decreasing. I think it is more of a team effort. Clients and their public accountants work together a lot more closely than before.

Festi: Technology plays a role. Before, clients would give the manual ledger to you and you'd have to redo it. Now, with technology you just download it and it's meshed.

Corrigan: Everything is so friendly now. Any Excel spreadsheet can be uploaded and downloaded.

Etzler: You don't really need to be on site to do an audit anymore. As long you know the plant is there and you saw it two years ago, you just look at your analytics and so forth. You have the opportunity now to look at the big picture, which really enhances the profession and what we can give our clients. Instead of looking at immaterial accounts like we did 15 years ago, we can concentrate on comparing the numbers to budget and the five-year forecast. Different computer packages and software can really give the client powerful information and point out deficiencies of which they may not have been aware.

Corrigan: We're bringing more value ...

Etzler: ... with more cooperation.

Esselstein: Do you think clients see more value?

Corrigan: Oh, I definitely do. Do you Bob, being in industry?

Richardson: I think people at the staff level see helping the auditors as more troublesome because there is more interim involvement in helping the auditor. But for management, I think they do see the value in keeping the costs down and getting the benefit of having more of a partnership.

Festi: Some of that is the emphasis of our profession on transitioning from a commodity to a valued service. CPAs are getting more face time with the CEO and CFO to do the very things that Paul Etzler said.

Weisinger I think it also depends on the size of your client. Smaller businesses, with owners looking to sell the company in five or 10 years, especially see the value of our service. We are in there talking with them about projections, the value of their business, how to drive the risks down so they can one day sell, etc. They are seeing that service now because we're not spending our time working on things that really don't matter to the business. We're using technology to really serve the client.

Esselstein: Is it easier to keep the young people excited about the profession today? Do they see the career path as more difficult?

Festi: We have to be realistic. We're a more mobile society than before. Experts say the Xers and the Ys are going to have five different careers. A lot of times they are coming in with the expectation that this will be a five-year phase; "Here's what I'm going to develop now." They're not really interested in equity, it's more just income. There's nothing wrong with that. They have talents. We can train them. I think an organization needs a balance between people looking to build equity and those who aren't.

Esselstein: If you have that income-only relationship, don't you have trouble with succession?

Festi: You can't generalize that none of the Xers want equity. In every generation you have people who are not stereotypical. As our profession is currently constituted, we need some people who are going to be long term.

Etzler: It's up to the partners and principals to identify who will be on track to be a partner in 10 to 15 years, and who is content staying more technical. There needs to be a path for each type of person. You have people on the fast track and people who will work hard, but don't really aspire to be a partner.

Festi: It really is a team effort. You need the different positions and players.


Weisinger: What I see happening in my age group is the push for partners to develop a "partner in training" program. We have questions such as: How do we bill? What are the different kinds of services we provide? Why do we do what we do? How do we do it? How do you communicate it to the client?

There are groups of employees who just want an income. At the same time there are people aiming for that partner level. If the current partners don't train them to become partners, they will go elsewhere.

Esselstein: It used to be that a CPA firm would hire 10 new CPAs with the expectation that all 10 wanted a long-term career in public accounting. We got to select from those 10 which ones we wanted and help the others out. Today, we hire 20 to get two interested in the long term. I don't think the next generation is seeing this as a profession. The pressure is now on the firm to see who they can recruit and keep.

Weisinger: It is much more important today to really evaluate who we are going to hire and see if they are going to be in it for the long haul. That kind of evaluation needs to happen every year, because two or three years from now they may leave. There is more pressure to make sure that time invested in someone is not lost, but sometimes it is.

Etzler: Right now, public accounting firms have a shortage of staff and seniors. There may be some very good people coming out of college, but there is still a shortage in that mid-range of experience. We may get 20 and only two may stay, but what will happen in five to 10 years? Will that continue? In the last five years we have seen a lot more regulations and compliance issues. How will that impact the need for new CPAs in public accounting? Will we need less? Will the shortage continue?

Esselstein: Is the shortage self-imposed because we haven't been able to retain those individuals?

Festi: It is a shifting paradigm. There are many opportunities out there. There is a book, Free Agent Nation, that talks about the greater number of part time workers. They can connect from home, so they don't have to be as close geographically. They can support permanent staff so you don't need as many permanent staff as before, but they need to be skilled in supervising and training. You can really leverage the abundance of part time workers that are available.

Esselstein: How would you characterize the loyalty among the people coming in--do they have more, the same, or less?

Festi: Loyalty came in during the industrial age. The worker gave loyalty to the employer in exchange for security. Then the security was broken and the loyalty began to wane.

The Xers and the Ys may not be looking for what we Boomers used to define as a career, but they'll put in the hours. Our expectation is 2,300 hours a year, which gives them flexibility. Nobody has trouble getting in the hours, it's more a matter of when they do it. They can fit the time into their lifestyle.

Weisinger: I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all anymore. Everyone has a different mix of responsibilities.

Esselstein: How many people do you see make more than you and work less?

Corrigan: I can't focus on what others do. I need to manage my own workload and expectations. Even if I work more than expected, I don't want the expectation raised. I want to keep my flexible schedule.

Weisinger It's about your own life, how you feel balanced. I know my client obligations and what it takes to be a good husband and father. That might be different for everyone else.

Festi: Sometimes we are our own enemies. We are perceived to be workaholics and people don't want that. Each of us here has achieved our own work-life balance that works for us and we are successful. The challenge is to get that message out into the schools and challenge the workaholic perception.

Richardson: There is also a perception that the work is boring. A lot of people think accounting is not an exciting profession as opposed to marketing or sales. I don't think people even know about the hours.

Esselstein: The feedback from some colleges since Sarbanes-Oxley is that the work is tedious, repetitive and boring.

Corrigan: Because that's what they learn; they learn the tax laws, the audit procedures, GAAP, etc. They don't learn the consulting aspect or see how fun accounting can be.

Festi: Don't we reinforce that in the first years in the profession? There is the perception out there that accounting is going to be boring, tedious work. Then when these people come out of college, what kind of work do we give them? Boring, tedious work. And who are they communicating with? Their friends back in college.

Corrigan: That's hopefully where an internship comes into play. We try and make the work as challenging as we can for our interns or new hires. We try to give them more than just tax preparation.

Weisinger: The universities also have to start informing the students how fun it can be. CPAs can go out to different clients and learn about different industries.

Esselstein: Are we still getting the best and the brightest?

Etzler: With terms like forensic accounting and fraud plus these huge thefts, students are seeing how sexy accounting can be, even if the schools aren't communicating it.

Esselstein: With all the pressure for compliance work--404, SOX, etc.--are people coming out just a little geekier than we would like to see them, or are they still broad thinkers?

Weisinger: We need a mix of the two. We need some of the more technical people, but to make any practice grow we need relationship managers, people with the social skills to not only keep the current client base, but also attract more.

Esselstein: Do Xers have the same caliber of social skills as the Boomers did?

Festi: Xers seem to be more loners than Boomers. They don't work in groups as much. Ys seems more gregarious, at least, that's my perception. The Boomers are guilty of being helicopter parents to the Ys--right there to help them at any moment. As a result, the Ys expect others to show them the way and take their arm. While the Boomers can be more rebellious and speak out the Xers are more independent. I don't believe the Xers let you know when they are dissatisfied.

Esselstein: They vote with their feet.

Corrigan: Out of respect--they don't want to hurt others' feelings.

Weisinger: Some Xers and Ys need to do a better job of walking up to somebody and shaking hands instead of sending an e-mail when the person is just two offices over. We try and stress that to the newer employees. It's so valuable just to talk to someone face-to-face rather than sending an e-mail.

Festi: Some of this is a metamorphosis. With the generation before Boomers--the "veterans"--you had to go face to face. You would never send them an e-mail. That's who the Boomers grew up with; they are the CEOs we cut our teeth on. So we are used to the personal visit. The Xers would just as soon send an e-mail; it's personal to them.

The business community is changing and we as a profession need to meet that change. How do we train the Xers and the Ys? We still need to have that face-to-face visit to deliver the value added service while leveraging technology.

Esselstein: Are you Xers getting enough mentoring and coaching from the older generation?

Weisinger: Yes. At our firm we have a formal, tiered process. New staff have at least one mentor, and then one or two other people who they feel comfortable discussing problems with. The mentor is assigned, the other two people are chosen. All three are there to answer any question, no matter how silly it may seem.

Esselstein: Frank, how were we mentored, do you remember?

Festi: By example. I don't recall being assigned a mentor. We just picked our mentor.

Esselstein: How does mentoring work at Sherwin Williams?

Richardson: In 2006 The Consumer Group Accounting Department created a Financial Management Trainee Program. People who are identified as future leaders will rotate through several field and headquarter assignments before being placed into their first permanent position.

Etzler: Public and private are quite different. I think in almost any public accounting organization, you're going to have some kind of mentoring. A partner will take an X or a Y out to lunch every once in awhile. There is a lot of informal communication and training.

They may only keep two out of the 20, but it's making sure those two are technically savvy, can communicate well, and offer the best client service. There are definitely some bottom line intentions for someone to do the mentoring.

Sandra L. Spieker is editor for The Ohio Society of CPAs' Catalyst: The Leading Edge of Ohio Business. She can be reached at or 800.686.2727, ext. 321.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Spieker, Sandra L.
Publication:Catalyst (Dublin, Ohio)
Article Type:Cover story
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Previous Article:Small business managers reveal startling work hours and habits.
Next Article:Financial restatements: the changing rules of the game.

Related Articles
Abortion, Violence, and the Media.
Cultivate a personal life -- but remember where the lines are.
Naval Shiphandler's Guide.
Work-life balance.
Work-life balance.
Balancing act.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters