By Simon Bittlestone, CEO, Metapraxis
None of us are getting any younger, but, in a way, the workplace is. Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce in both the UK and US. By next year, this cohort – and the even younger Generation Z group that follows them – will make up more than half the workforce globally.
As the ageing population of baby boomers retires, this new generation is taking the reins –including in finance – with significant consequences for businesses. Despite this, few generations have been as stereotyped and maligned as the millennials, with many people happy to label them as job hoppers, entitled, addicted to their phones and so on – the list goes on and on.
But much of this is just lazy thinking. The evidence suggests, for instance, that millennials are no more likely to job hop than baby boomers were at the same age. It also shows that growing numbers are eschewing social media.
And besides, even if the stereotypes were true, the demographic changes we’re seeing, combined with the reality of aging, means that finance departments have little choice: they must increasingly rely on this new generation to provide the manpower and leadership they need in the years ahead. Fortunately, our latest research shows they are in good hands.
We polled 400 young finance professionals in big businesses across the UK and US to get their views on the changes they’re seeing in the industry and their ambitions for the future. And the findings show significant reasons for optimism.
Without a doubt, there are challenges for firms when it comes to hanging onto their finance professionals. Our survey hasn’t revealed a generation of job hoppers, but what it does show is the breadth of younger finance professionals’ ambitions.
Fewer than a third of young people working in finance say they look forward to the day when they make CFO. At the same time, however, they are looking for a range of senior positions: Another quarter in our survey said they wanted a seat at the top table joining the C-suite outside finance, perhaps as CEO; about the same say they want to go it alone and start their own business.
So why do so many young professionals see their future outside finance? The poll suggests there are a number of reasons, and while some may be concerning, others are actually pretty encouraging.
First, it’s possible that some of these workers are disenchanted with finance – and maybe some scepticism is only natural. After all, this is a generation where the older members entered the workforce in the aftermath of Enron, and the younger members at the peak of the financial crisis. The responsibility of their position weighs heavily on many: more than eight out of 10 told us that they believe finance’s role is to create trust in business. Yet only 45% say they see public trust growing in the last year, while a third say it’s declined.
And, if there’s some doubt about finance’s ability to sway perceptions outside the organisation, there’s also some disillusionment with its influence internally: a third of young finance professionals in the US and a quarter in the UK say they don’t feel confident that shareholders or even executives believe that the finance function drives business performance.
Many business leaders probably think finance’s contribution to performance goes without saying, but these findings make one thing clear: they will need to make this message more explicit if they want to inspire and hang on to talented finance professionals.
Regardless of the challenges that different businesses face in encouraging the best talent into finance and keeping them, they are worth overcoming. That’s because, if young finance professionals are open to new careers, it’s in large part because they are happy to embrace change, which is likely to be a valuable attribute in the coming years.
This openness to change is strongly apparent when it comes to attitudes to technology – perhaps not surprising for a generation famously described as “digital natives”. This group recognises the fact that automation is likely to take over some of finance’s tasks – and about half say that this could be a threat to their role.
However, they also see the tremendous opportunities that technology brings: more than half agree that advanced analytics offer a transformational opportunity for the finance function. In addition, about four in 10 say data visualisation could change the way they work, and a third believe that AI and machine learning will have a big impact in the industry.
And that certainly doesn’t scare them. In fact, this generation of finance professionals is embracing it: half say it’s imperative for finance professionals to learn data science skills – not much less than those who say the same thing about accounting skills. Almost eight out of ten, meanwhile, say automation of core processes and strategic decision support will enable the finance function to add more strategic value to the business.
This is, perhaps, the real key to why modern finance processionals don’t always see their future in the discipline: because as technology transforms the role, they are increasingly developing a wider, more strategic set of skills and gaining greater influence in their companies. That should prepare them to take on leadership positions in the future – and not just in their departments, but right across the entire business, to the benefit of all.