This article was first published in the October 2016 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Young finance professionals are ambitious, internationally minded and confident about the future impact of technology – all characteristics that position them well to face the challenges of finance and management in today’s world.

ACCA’s Generation Next survey, attracting responses from almost 19,000 finance professionals aged 16 to 36 from 150 countries, finds that these leaders of tomorrow want to build long-term careers and develop varied skills. ‘The hopes and aspirations of the next generation of accountants are very different from their predecessors,’ says ACCA’s head of corporate sector and author of the report, Jamie Lyon. ’They are very engaged, as the incredible response rate to the survey shows, and make it crystal clear to their future employers what they want and expect from their careers.’

According to the survey report, to be launched soon, Generation Next professionals fully appreciate the value of a finance career: the vast majority (85%) think that finance career experience will be valuable for leaders in the future. They also have leadership aspirations themselves: the great majority (87%) aim to lead a finance team at some point in their career.

As for their current situation, around half of Generation Next professionals think they have a good work-life balance: 53% of professionals at the top end of the 16 to 36 age range say they are satisfied or very satisfied with their current state, compared with 45% of the youngest professionals. But there is generally less satisfaction with remuneration. Overall just under a third (32%) of survey participants are satisfied with their remuneration, although older individuals are again more likely to be content.

Why finance?

The young finance professionals surveyed by ACCA were most likely to be attracted to a career in finance because of the long-term career prospects (43%). But many also value the opportunity to develop a broad range of skills (40%) and use them in a wide range of roles inside and outside of finance (36%).

Such awareness of the value of broad skills and the variety of roles in which finance professionals can act is encouraging, given ACCA’s recent research into the skills and capabilities that will be required of them in the fast-changing, complex modern world. As identified in ACCA’s June 2016 research report Professional accountants – the future, developments in four broad areas – regulation and governance, technology, the expectations of stakeholders and globalisation – are likely to have a significant impact on professional accountants in future. If today’s emerging professionals are to thrive, they need to develop a range of competencies that include technical knowledge and skills as well as interpersonal behaviours. ACCA has identified seven such competency areas that include aspects such as digital awareness, creativity, emotional intelligence and vision.

The opportunity to learn and develop such competencies is the key factor in future professionals’ decisions to stay with their employer (89%), closely followed by career progression opportunities and remuneration. However, it seems that many young finance professionals are a little disappointed by their current employer: only 38% agreed that their current organisation offers them opportunities to achieve their career goals.

By a considerable margin, young finance professionals think on-the-job learning is the most effective way to improve their professional capabilities (selected by 52%), although many also appreciate the value of mentoring, job rotations and secondments. Further professional qualifications are ranked fourth in terms of effectiveness.

Onwards and upwards

Young finance professionals are ambitious and want to move onwards and upwards fast. Almost 50% of respondents to the Generation Next survey have been in their current role for less than two years, while only a minority have held the same role for more than five years. Most are expecting to be on the move in the near future: over a third of the young finance professionals surveyed would like to change jobs in less than a year, and 70% would like to change jobs within two years.

Two-thirds (67%) want their next role to be a promotion, although 33% see the value in a sideways move, which could give them new skills and business insights. They are willing to change employers to achieve their goals – 61% expect their next move to be outside their organisation.

Moving between sectors at some point is widely anticipated by young finance professionals: 73% of those surveyed aim to do so at some point in future. Similarly, four out of five Generation Next professionals surveyed would like a role in a different country or region at some point – and over a third hope to achieve this in their next career move. This high degree of interest in international experience indicates that younger finance professionals recognise that, as affirmed in Professional accountants – the future, the world is far more connected than ever before.

While young finance professionals value the long-term career prospects enabled by their qualification, they don’t necessarily expect to realise those prospects solely within the finance remit. Over half (60%) would like to pursue a role outside of finance or the accounting profession at some point. This isn’t to say that some would not return to finance after gaining new experience in a different type of role. In fact, given the complex environment in which finance teams operate now and will operate in future, gaining such broad experience can only support the effective performance of finance leaders.

In addition, many Generation Next professionals have entrepreneurial aspirations. Over half (60%) of survey respondents anticipate leaving the finance profession to move into a more general business role at some point in future. Even more (81%) would like to start their own business, typically later on in their careers.

Unfazed by technology

As highlighted in Professional accountants – the future, technology is one of the key drivers for change in the finance arena. Intelligent automated accounting systems, cloud computing, and smart software and systems are already changing the way finance professionals work. Manual bookkeeping will become a relic of the past, while complex processes such as the financial close will be increasingly automated. Technology is also expected to support more real-time reporting and analysis, shaping the way that finance professionals and their organisations collaborate, communicate and report.

Generation Next professionals are aware of such drivers for change. Most of those surveyed (57%) expect technology to replace many entry-level professional roles, but they aren’t fazed by this. They see the benefits that technology can bring: 84% agree that the growing use of technology will enable finance professionals to focus on much higher value-added activity.

‘It’s important that these young finance professionals take the opportunities presented by developments in technology and become agents of change for their employers,’ says Lyon. ‘Those who succeed in building the broad skills needed to thrive in the global, fast-moving, data-heavy environment can look forward to becoming the finance and business leaders of tomorrow.’

Similarly, employers are encouraged to understand what drives Generation Next professionals. ACCA’s research has found that they have a real appetite to learn and to progress, and most are willing to move locally, regionally and internationally in order to gain the development and career opportunities they seek. ‘Helping talented individuals to fulfil such developmental goals could well be a more powerful retention lever than pure financial remuneration,’ Lyon adds. ‘The more that organisations can develop stimulating career paths that provide broad business as well as finance experience, the more likely they are to maximise the potential of their Generation Next professionals.’

Sarah Perrin, journalist