How can I be more employable in re AI? Side hustles?
April 17, 2023 6:00 AM   Subscribe

I have a modest accounting job which is mostly approving transactions, clearing up policy questions, doing complex purchasing and paying bills that need oversight. I'm in my late forties and it's going to be tough to really start over due to ageism. What can I do to stay employed despite a move to replacing jobs like mine with AI? What kinds of side hustles could I start now that might provide a route to employment later?

Important: I do not have a car, although I can drive.

I'm really worried about losing my job, being largely unable to replace it, losing my job and being homeless in my late fifties. I know people who have barely avoided homelessness due to job loss in their fifties, and AI was not in the picture then.

What can I do now to become more economically resilient?
posted by Frowner to Work & Money (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I would think that small businesses are still going to need help with accounting for a long time. Maybe start some freelance work doing that? That way you're spreading your risk a bit, like if you lose one client, it'll just be X percent of your work and not the whole thing.

The main things I'm thinking of are businesses that are just starting out - you might offer a package that gets them all set up with the following:

- Setting up their accounts receivable and payable processes
- Some number of hours towards helping them use these processes
- A check-in at 30, 90, 180 days

Then there might be a package that deals with onboarding employees once that company is ready to hire someone. And another for how to close their books at the end of the year.

I'm not sure how much of that is in your wheelhouse but the idea is this: diversify your revenue so that losing one thing won't mean you're losing 100% all at once; create packages or bundles of services that are repeatable and easy to bill for so that you aren't reinventing the wheel with every new client.
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:18 AM on April 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

I work in university research at an R1 university and we are always trying to find people with this kind of experience to manage grants.

I think it’s possible that eventually AI could take over some of these roles, but universities are slow to make these kinds of changes and have to follow many complex compliance rules when it comes to grant management. We tend to be 10-15 years behind industry on lots of things.
posted by forkisbetter at 7:22 AM on April 17, 2023 [7 favorites]

The line I've heard from sensible AI experts in my line of work (lawyer) is that AI will not replace lawyers, but lawyers using AI will replace lawyers who are not. I think in most cases, AI will replace your job is an overhyped take. However, I do believe AI will significantly change many jobs eventually. For those jobs, people who understand it, know what it's good at and how to use it to do those things, while having strong skills in the things it cannot do will be an advantage.

I don't think taking up side hustles is the best approach. Rather, you could stay up to date on the general trends of how AI might empower you to be more productive in your job (without overly focusing on it or consuming too much of the hype), and learning to use key tools when they become available. For an accountant who uses Excel, for example, using ChatGPT now to improve skills and speed up creating formulas, and learning to use the features of Microsoft's Copilot when it comes out later this year may be reasonable steps.

The point dawkins_7 makes about small businesses is also a good one. AI will be adopted first in large enterprises where the capital investment of process changes, training and implementation is justified by any increased efficiency. I expect small businesses will be largely limited to off the shelf mass market programs which may not meet their needs anyway. Lots of businesses will be looking to hire people who have all of your skills, and knowing a bit about AI (e.g. enough to tell them that they can't replace you or anyone else with it) is a bonus.
posted by lookoutbelow at 7:27 AM on April 17, 2023 [16 favorites]

Just to add, working in fields with highly regulated data privacy like medicine will also delay implementation.
posted by lookoutbelow at 7:29 AM on April 17, 2023 [3 favorites]

Work for the government. Government, esp. federal, jobs are very secure, and transfers are often possible. You'd need to check out pension issues.
posted by theora55 at 7:46 AM on April 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

The line I've heard from sensible AI experts in my line of work (lawyer) is that AI will not replace lawyers, but lawyers using AI will replace lawyers who are not.

This is my take as well. Generative AI is a tool: it's not going to replace the need for experts, but it will make the people who use it more effective. It's most effective when it's used by someone who understand the topic area, and who knows how to translate "what the business wants" into "what is needed from [accounting/law/engineering/etc]".

Or, rephrased: it can generate work product (text, code, images, etc), but it can't make the decisions about what work product is needed to make the organization successful, or evaluate how useful the result is.

In the process, it might reduce the number of experts an organization needs, though, so I think it will still have some pretty significant impacts on employment!

Translating into hopefully-actionable advice: Become familiar with AI tools, how they work, and try them out for tasks that look like your daily work. And in the mean time, focus on the parts of your work that require understanding the organizations's needs, providing advice to management and colleagues, etc.
posted by learning from frequent failure at 8:50 AM on April 17, 2023 [6 favorites]

At least in the near future, I don't see your sort of role, which has to do with verification and due diligence, being completely replaced by AIs. Even where AIs start doing some of the work, they're currently unreliable enough when it comes to producing "truth" vs fabrications that people with domain knowledge will have to verify their output before it can be used. So the answer is probably to familiarize yourself with using AI tools in your area to make your work more efficient. An AI accountant might happily and quietly corrupt the books in subtle ways, and it's probably going to be a long time before a role like yours can be completely replaced by an automated process without a human to sign off on the output of that process. But 10-20 years down the road? There's no telling what the world of work will look like then.
posted by dis_integration at 8:52 AM on April 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

Side-remark pursuant to several remarks above: note that many "AI" tools are currently free-or-cheap to access for single users, so you can investigate their utility yourself. I mean, literally, go to and see which of your tasks it is able to correctly solve (or, perhaps more usefully, see which of your tasks it is able to grapple with whether or not the outcome is correct at present).
posted by aramaic at 9:04 AM on April 17, 2023

clearing up policy questions

How much of your knowledge applies to small business owners, people starting a business for the first time, or people just thinking of starting a business? One route could be to start doing some free or inexpensive public talks, presentations, or Q&As about things people in these positions need to know and think about; it's a scary subject for a lot of people. If you're able to build a reputation as a goto authority for this, you could start developing some educational programs or packages, or use that reputation together with dawkins_7's route and do client-specific consulting.
posted by trig at 9:06 AM on April 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

Your job is not likely to be replaced because of AI. But the skills needed to stay relevant in many careers change. If you were asked this question about LAW on its own, not specifically related to AI, what would your answer be? i.e. how does someone in your field stay relevant and knowledgeable as legal stuff transforms and evolves? That is basically the answer to your own question. AI is going to influence a lot of things, but quite slowly and manageably. Don't believe the hype.
posted by 0bvious at 10:05 AM on April 17, 2023

I don’t know exactly how this maps onto your current role, but one suggestion for someone with billing/accounting experience looking for a field that will be very slow to take up AI would be a medium-sized (20-30 clinicians or so) group therapy practice. As a field we’ve barely transitioned from paper (and I currently see a therapist who still uses only paper), and we’re inherently distrustful of automation in relation to our clients because if insurance fucks up or billing is wrong or whatever, we see first hand the stress it causes them. In my experience billing people also basically run the admin side of the clinic; any improvements made to the office equipment or technologies are 100% initiated by them with a sign off from a harried clinical director who is way too busy to care what they’re using as long as it’s not too expensive. Larger clinics and hospitals have someone whose entire job is to manage the clinic without seeing clients and they may be more likely to pick push new tech on the admin staff, but in a medium-sized clinic the director usually does a lot of clinical work and has little time to manage the billing team.

I mean, no joke, there’s someone in admin in my clinic who had to be taught how to open a web browser because her previous role had only handled paper files. Plus, from what I hear, most of the billing team’s role is handling the headache from the automated denials from insurance companies. As insurance companies use more AI, the demand for correcting those mistakes is also likely to grow. We’ve already had to expand our team because insurance denials have increased in the past few years. Also, I know a lot of smaller clinics hire someone to do that kind of work for a few hours here and there, which could be a way to build up experience before looking for a more stable role in a larger clinic.
posted by brook horse at 10:21 AM on April 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

Seconding everyone who's saying to start working a little bit with AI tools so you can use them as PART of your job. I'm a photographer and a very experienced retoucher. I already use AI almost every day with content-aware fill in Photoshop (and have experienced the progression from it being almost useless when it was introduced to something I use every day as it has improved). I'm only more valuable because I also know how to do everything "by hand" and also understand the limitations of the tools. I'm spending some time experimenting with some of the other tools out there that can make my work faster or more efficient. No success yet, but I'm feeling a lot less stressed about "AI taking over" when I realize I use it in some of my tools every day and it just helps me be faster at, say, filling in a background if I need to re-crop an image, as opposed to spending half an hour reconstructing it from scratch like I used to.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:55 AM on April 17, 2023

Writing AI “Prompts” (literally how to form the right “question” that you type into a tool like ChatGPT) is a new hot “job”.

Having expertise in a field like accounting so you’re able to validate and narrow the responses and focus on that realm could be a very reasonable path forward for you.

So just start plugging away at asking Chat GPT common or even esoteric accounting problems and figure out how to craft the prompts that get you the results you’re looking for.
posted by bitdamaged at 11:22 AM on April 17, 2023 [1 favorite]

One more thought to add - I put very little stake in what people who make AI tools think about how it will affect my job. I do take seriously those who both understand the job and understand the possibilities of AI. I would look for some experts in your field who are discussing AI knowledgeably and listen to them, and try to tune out the vast deluge of hype from people trying to sell the stuff.
posted by lookoutbelow at 4:21 PM on April 17, 2023 [2 favorites]

I mostly want to reassure you a little bit.

First, echoing that accounting/bookkeeping skills are amazing for all the small businesses around you. In my small business, first, AI will be of limited use because we are quirky and have quirky policies and weird mishmashes of expenses and there will not be 234375345 files of data on how best to do things for us, which in small business is A Thing. Also, a small business owner generally needs help bookkeeping not just because things take time they don't have but also because it takes focus they don't have, and using AI requires both.

HUMANS are amazing at filling those gaps though.

It might be that you would have a period of time where you'd have to get several clients, which is a juggling act, while you found a salaried/health insuranced job again. However you might make a lot more money. This is the worst case thing.

However, on the topic of your age --

I'm 52, and I am 6 YEARS out of digital content & marketing which should be apocalyptic, career-wise. I'm about to turn down a job offer because I'm in second-round interviews on a job I prefer...and I only applied to three jobs in a moment of rage at my past job. Got interviews at 2/3, and so far one actual bona fide offer. I have a job right now that I also like fine. How did I do this?

1) I continued to pursue certificates (one course at a time) relevant to my field, to show my commitment to keeping my skills up.

2) I took dates off my resume where degrees were concerned and

3) I dropped a few jobs off the bottom.

I think you are experiencing anxiety and that sucks, but I'm not sure it's actually grounded in reality. Keep learning and growing both within your organization and outside and you don't have to panic that your stability will vanish.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:20 AM on April 18, 2023 [2 favorites]

Childcare and massage therapy will be fairly protected, if either of those are accessible. I agree with the comments about learning how to integrate AI into your work, but I also don't think it's unreasonable to start wanting to diversify your income so that it's not all coming from accounting.

It does help my anxiety to know that if I lose my job, a huge percentage of the population will likely be losing their jobs as well, and something will have to be done like UBI?
posted by EarnestDeer at 6:37 PM on April 18, 2023

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