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The year that changed freelancing

Updated: Jan 8



I've freelanced for nearly 25 years and felt a significant shift this past year. A massive one. Not like the 2009 recession financial quake. From technology to the economy and cultural changes, it wasn't one thing but a swirling of shape-shifting events that changed the consulting game. And we won't be going back.


The rise of AI

Nothing said 2023 like ChatGPT. And depending on who you ask, it was the year's most perfect or precarious tech. But no one could argue its impact. Freelance writers, in particular, immediately saw the lurking threat coming into view. How would it affect our livelihood? Would it take our jobs? Could we use it to do our jobs better? The fact is that ChatGPT or any AI tool is only as smart as the interweb. And while it's been mighty impressive for some applications, not so much for writing like a human—at least not yet.


But that's not stopping employers from trying to crack the code, hiring "AI writing trainers" to develop a more sophisticated voice. Exploring ChatGPT's prowess on both sides—when a client asked me to write an article from an AI-powered outline to my absence apology blog post, I witnessed we have a long way to go. But there will come a time when machine-learning capabilities, the swath of internet intelligence, and the human voice merge to be almost indetectable.


Tech company layoffs 

There were many layoffs this year, and tech companies leaned in hard, sometimes twice. The result was about 1,170 businesses, cutting north of 260K employees (2022 was ~165K for comparison). Some ex-employees collected unemployment. Others went on to their next job or industry. And many turned to freelancing.


There were also the stressed, demotivated employees, beyond quiet or loud quitting, that made the jump to consulting. Instead of trying to recapture that feeling of working remotely during the pandemic, they took matters into their own hands. Many left a job they didn't like for one with a better work/life balance. Even the risk factor wasn't that scary. After all, they could get laid off again somewhere else at a moment's notice.


Welcome to the party, Gen Z 

Another critical factor in freelancing growth is Gen Z. This demographic embraces freelancing more than any other before it. For those under 25, twice as many are inclined to go out on their own instead of a corporate job. Many digital natives see the success of the creator economy, social influencers, podcasters, and other non-traditional work as the road to self-made freedom. If you have a computer and a passion or skill, anything is possible—no need for employment at a faceless company.


The definition of "success" has also changed and is no longer carried on from parental notions or society's antiquated work paradigm of the 40-hour week. Instead of climbing up the corporate ladder, this generation values designing their own career path, having 100% flexibility, and believing in what they're doing—not taking commands from a middle manager. With freelancing, they get it all (and, for some, free housing from Mom and Dad as a bonus).


Freelancer rate freefall

As an avid follower of LinkedIn job opportunities (I've gotten some great gigs there), this year saw a big shift in quality and quantity. Gone were many of the standard-issue "freelance writer" or "content writer" and more junky, barely tangentially related job relatives. Unsurprisingly, many included the word "AI" or "ChatGPT" in the context of either: we want you to use it or we don't. I also noticed there were some posts with a shockingly high number of applicants, sometimes 1,000. Beyond potential talent hoarding, it signals the proliferation of AI, the scores of freelancers looking for jobs, and the competitive environment.


Also in 2023, many employers were legally required to list the hourly rate or salary based on the corporate headquarters' state for the first time. While this transparency was refreshing, some of the insights were disheartening. Only $40/hour for an experienced copywriter? That seemed unthinkable, even in 2022. It also speaks to the power of supply and demand. These employers pay low because they can. Think of all the newly-minted freelancers ready to take on a gig for less money. I would have expected this on an Upwork or Fiverrr site, but not LinkedIn.


So what's next?

None of this is necessarily "good" news for freelancers in general and for writers specifically. But that doesn't mean it's insurmountable. Like any major work or cultural shift, big challenges require fresh thinking. Freelance copywriters must be more innovative and use these potential roadblocks to fuel new opportunities. It could mean more AI education to power up your skillset, increasing vertical industry knowledge and clients. Adding new portfolio services. Or even take up another side hustle and learn something new.


As the freelance landscape evolves, we must continue to change with it, or get out of the game.

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Always love your articles, have some questions about the AI conundrum when we get together next. Liked the possibility about moving home, then remembered my parents are dead...

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Yes, AI fodder for our next get together for sure! Have you ever considered moving in with one of the kiddos? lol

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When the creative market started crumbling — or should I say crumbled under me — I thought it was shameless ageism. But I know people of every generation and all skill and experience levels who are submitting dozens of resumes and getting ignored. I don't think it's ChatGPT or any external force. I think it's a lot of people who desperately want to work and are willing to take crap assignments at low rates.

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Good observations, Richard. I agree there are a lot of unemployed folks out there desperate for work and that's a big factor. I think throwing AI in the mix doesn't help because it's replacing some of those freelance writer jobs with roles to train AI to write. Take a look at LinkedIn sometime, the number of posts like this is astounding.

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