Perspective | Sometimes the Old Accounting Ways Are Best, but Nostalgia Is the Enemy of Progress

By: | May 21, 2023

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected].

Standards change. Apparently, much of what one takes for granted can become wildly unacceptable to the sensibilities of younger people.

The need for accounting records occasioned the invention of writing. For thousands of years, men (mostly) labored over stones, papyri or ledgers in which every transaction was recorded by hand. Along with mathematical understanding, bookkeepers needed to possess immaculate handwriting or chiseling skills (not that they were necessarily chiselers).

That standard changed, first with accounting machines and lately with recording systems in the ether. If accountants have any paper on their desks today, it’s much more likely to be a scratch pad or a birthday card than a cash book.

I have read that “by 1930, most major U.S. companies had adopted mechanical accounting as a more efficient way of processing accounting information,” but in 1968, when I ventured into business as a teenager, many major UK companies were still recording financial information by hand.

Standards change: Accounting trainees worked 12-hour days, commuted for two or three hours, and then studied for four hours in the evening. Today, that’s not just frowned on by progressive types but has been made illegal in some advanced economies.

The second audit team to which I was appointed was an insurance firm in West London. A million policyholders’ details were laboriously recorded in ink, by hand, in enormous leather-bound ledgers. Windowless rooms full of clerks scribbled in them all day, every day.

As auditors, our job was to “tick and bop” — that is, to verify the contents of a sample of the entries in those books, to provide assurance that the recording process operated correctly. Standards change: It’s now known as “tick and bob,” although it’s a vanishing concept.

The giant ledgers smelled of ink and history. We’d verify their contents all the livelong day at the audit table; sometimes, it was an audit radiator or an audit cardboard box. I expect that standard has changed too.

The sales ledger at the insurance company was maintained by a man in his late 90s, I thought, although at 18 everyone older looks to be in their late 90s. That probably hasn’t changed.

The white-haired gentleman had been the bookkeeper at the company for half a century and took great pride in the volumes he maintained. Why wouldn’t he? On one level, they were a work of art.

On day two of the audit, I was instructed to verify his sales ledger. That meant checking a couple of thousand entries over the course of a week.
This’ll sound odd: I enjoyed doing it. It was detective work, of a sort.

Near the end of the day, I accidentally knocked a cup of coffee over the open ledger. The aged bookkeeper wept as he tried to salvage his life’s work. Callous though I was, I felt bad for him.

Thus, it can be said that, despite the wholesale changes in standards that the internet has visited upon us, in at least one aspect, it has been a boon. Never again will an old man’s work be destroyed by a lad keen to finish up and go home.

That’s something, I suppose. &

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