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Opening Up an Inflection Point: Bookkeepers’ Narratives and Communities Facing New Robot Overlords

By Melanie Maxwell Bailey, San José State University

I feel sorry for like, the people in my local group, that are not doing any technology, or application integration with their clients, because they're just going to get [long pause] you know, they’re just gonna wake up someday, and their job is not going to be there. It's, um, you really need to stay on top of things and kind of roll with where things are going. And they will roll with it. They'll choose to go somewhere else or do something else. But yeah, I really feel like the bookkeeper job is going to go away. – Joanna, bookkeeper in the Pacific Northwest

In 2016, retail giant Walmart announced they were eliminating approximately 7,000 accounting and invoicing positions in favor of a “modernized system for bookkeeping and tracking inventory.” Walmart officials told CNN they anticipated displaced employees would move into new roles rather than leave the company completely, though they were unable to say how many people successfully made that transition. Although not unique to bookkeepers, Walmart’s announcement is just one example of the national reach and impact of automation on jobs. In 2019, technology companies continue to automate bookkeeping through the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning to accounting software, profoundly transforming the ways bookkeepers accomplish their work. Companies that develop and sell the software that automates tasks, specifically timely transactional data entry, promote these changes as “processes that streamline firm workflows, boost accuracy, and give valuable time back to bookkeepers to concentrate on their clients.”

Meanwhile, many small bookkeepers express fear around their increasing economic precarity, especially regarding the future sustainability of their jobs and businesses. If what bookkeepers used to spend most of their working time on is now being done by machines, what will clients pay them to do? The spread of neoliberal reforms and ideologies and increased precarity in the job market through less full-time employment also greatly impact these narratives. In the digital era, we are also dealing with issues of an increasingly remote and mobile workforce and a growing awareness of the influence of the people designing technology.

I joined my mother in what eventually became our small bookkeeping business in 2011 and began attending accounting conferences in 2014. This research project was born from a simple observation – that ‘thought leaders’ in the bookkeeping, accounting, and accounting technology world were loudly predicting a future where robots would replace the services provided by bookkeepers. Despite their claims that those people could shift their work into something new – typically whatever variation of a ‘trusted advisor’ was trendy at the moment – the community was scared, with no real clue what the future held for them.

This palpable unease was the final push to apply to the SJSU Applied Anthropology master’s program to study the changes I was seeing in the bookkeeping industry. My undergraduate education in anthropology meant I couldn’t help but interrogate the deterministic narratives I heard at conferences, and I saw more could be brought to the conversation using the holistic, social lens of anthropology. My research examines how small U.S. bookkeepers are coping with and adapting to changing accounting technology, and how those reactions are constructed and informed by larger social and economic processes.

My very first interview was with a bookkeeper I met at an accounting conference in 2019. We had a wonderful conversation that ironically had to move from video conferencing software to FaceTime because of technical difficulties. We laughed and chatted like old friends, talking about her business, how she got started (a loan from an ex-boyfriend!), how she was using technology in her business, and how she wanted to do even more with it. We continued to discuss her business community, the future of bookkeeping, and the impacts she imagined of technology in that future.

She told me that she thinks in ten years bookkeeping is going to become increasingly automated, and the people who are afraid to move into technology will be retired or dead. I leaned into the phone and asked, Have you thought much about what different services might look like for you? If stuff keeps getting automated? Her demeanor became serious all in an instant. I try to think about it, and I start having panic attacks about it. She tells me how she feels like she’s smart, but that she sees people with less experience than her being successful. It’s a lot of pressure on me to probably challenge myself, or to use my skill set more. … But I can’t say that’s going to make me happy. I think that that’s certainly some soul searching that I have to do, and try to figure out, how can I market myself? Aside from like … paying bills.

My research was born from a simple observation, but it is driven by a desire – to understand how small bookkeepers are adapting and innovating in their businesses and to provide real examples of the new strategies others in the community are using to those who are struggling with what might be next for them. The bookkeeping community’s response to my research has been overwhelmingly positive, and I feel lucky to have this unique opportunity to combine my background in anthropology with my experience in the industry to both examine the past and “exquisitely” study the present (a la Genevieve Bell) to bring insights to the bookkeeping community as the future of their industry is transformed by the molding grip of automation.

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