Do you remember the “I’m a Mac” commercials of the late eighties? Released in the golden age of Apple advertising, the goal was simple: associate PC users with the “unpopular nerd” cliché, while representing Apple Mac users as young, creative, attractive, and lucky. It worked.

How Pop Culture Reinforced the Face of Accounting

The commercials were put out at the perfect time, when users were really not happy with the experience of being a PC user. Not only did these play off the disdain for *wince* Windows, they were incredibly effective at establishing Macs with their target audience.

Unfortunately, one of these stands out. The commercial titled “Bean Counter” puts John Hodgman, the face of PC, as an accountant. While the message was meant to show Microsoft as more content with spending on advertising than the product, it played up the accountant trope as a stodgy, nerdy, and unpopular person within the organization.

Pop culture did a lot to reinforce the image of the accountant as a white, middle-aged, middle-management type. Science got Walter White. Technology got Tony Stark. Engineering got Mythbusters. Math got the card-counting movie 21 and 2016’s Hidden Figures.

Even Good Representation isn’t Great

Accounting got… Ben Wyatt in Parks and Recreation? Oscar in The Office? But for each of these lovable and sociable people, it also took two steps back. The Office alone gave you Angela and Kevin. Ben Wyatt’s initial role was the cold, uncaring numbers cruncher.

And those were the ones who were on the straight and narrow. Cool finance professionals in pop culture end up making the profession look dirty. Andy Dufresne ended up cooking the books for the warden. Breaking Bad’s Skylar White laundered the money. Weed’s Doug Wilson hit the corruption superfecta—creating a fake organization for drug trafficking, cooking the books, building a fake foundation to siphon money, and creating a ‘religion’ for tax purposes. Ben Affleck in the 2016 Action/Thriller The Accountant displayed some coolness, while doing criminal deeds. Not role models. 

STEM now STEAM with the Wrong A?

With accounting’s continued perception, it happened to get the short end of the stick in the educational community. Initially focused on encouraging new participation in maligned fields, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) recently was co-opted to include “Arts” in the curriculum to become STEAM. Why?

STEM was created to push maligned professions that paid well and offered career stability. Adding “underwater basket weaving” to the curriculum makes the field meaningless. What if the “A” in STEAM is Accounting?

Accounting needs a pipeline. Accounting offers high-paid and stable career paths. Accounting desperately underserves people of color, and the lack of representation has crippled small business growth. Accounting needs to evolve.

Running out of Talent

As discussed in a recent article on Going Concern, the accounting profession is no longer facing a shortage—it’s facing a crisis. The AICPA Trends report [PDF] found that new CPA exam candidate numbers were the lowest they’ve been in more than a decade. While this decline would be palatable with the rise of technology to replace low-level staff, it is paired with a retirement crisis set to damage the mid-level role most.

Boomers are on the way out. Five years ago, AICPA estimated that 75% of its members will be eligible to retire by 2020. The technological requirements of lockdowns have edged some older people closer to early retirement. Summed up by GC’s Adrienne Gonzalez, “[…] It seems the pool of qualified accountants […] took a bad hit in the 2008 recession, never quite recovered, and ended up getting the last little shred of hope beaten out of it by the Pandemic.”

The biggest problem we continue to see is a tepid response from high school and college students, meaning the future could be bleaker than presumed.

Selling Accounting to the Next Generation

Accounting is a hard sell, but it’s vital. Getting past the ‘nerdy number cruncher’ motif and undoing the stereotypes of accountants will require community participation and ideas from everyone in the accounting profession. CPA Evolution is going to hopefully connect a few dots, showing off the technological role of accountants, but we need to do more to overcome the dry curricula and drab mentality of the profession.

As the leading resource for Controllers, we want to hear how corporates are taking steps to drive interest in the accounting world. Join the conversation by joining the Controllers Council or commenting below.

Additional Resources

What Does the 2021 Hiring Market Look for Accounting Professionals?

The Evolution of the Controller and the Importance of Growth

The Continued Expansion of the Finance Department