The job losses have already begun

What are you doing about it?

The job losses have already begun
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Israel Andrade

At least half a dozen data-centric studies from the last 12 months now confirm it: Freelance jobs that require basic writing, coding or translation are disappearing, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Specifically, the number of freelance jobs posted on Fiverr, and related platforms, has dropped as much as 21% in areas where generative AI excels. And data from Upwork show that pay from many of them has dipped precipitously to boot.

Job loss is a given

AI experts don't agree on much, including whether generative AI will lead to artificial general intelligence (AGI) or if the scaling law will keep working forever. But there's one that they all agree on: Jobs will be lost to AI.

Indeed, AI researcher and Stanford professor Fei-Fei Li said as much at the NetApp Insight conference in October last year. Some have called her the "godmother of AI" due to her groundbreaking research that advanced our understanding of deep learning – and which eventually led to ChatGPT.

Jobs will be impacted, Li conceded in a fireside chat with NetApp CEO George Kurian. She cautioned against the irresponsible use of AI and argued that AI should be used to augment humans, not replace them.

"I know jobs will change. Every profound technology has changed jobs; there will be pain. If we're not careful, we'll have social unrest. If we're not careful, we harm the most vulnerable people, whether they're women, children, people of colour, or people from different backgrounds," she said.

Canary in the coal mine

The WSJ piece cited a freelance copywriter who lost her financial adviser clients not long after ChatGPT made its debut. While all denied using AI, some did come back later with an unusual request: Could she help improve the copy they'd using AI to generate?

The impact is not just felt by writers. A freelance concept artist for TV and movies interviewed said his income in 2023 was less than half of his average year. According to him, jobs are drying up for artists, they are often given AI reference material to work from, or if they get jobs, are offered pay rates far below what is typical.

But surely freelancers don't represent the wider workforce? Well, according to the labour report published by the Singapore government in 2022, there are 257K freelancers in Singapore. This puts freelancers at slightly more than 10% of the resident labour force.

Moreover, freelancers matter for the simple reason that successful freelancers are specialists in niche domains. While most full-time positions are an amalgamation of multiple roles less easily replaced by AI, the technology will likely weaken the value of any given full-time role over time.

In that sense, the job prospects of freelancers represent the canary in the coal mine for the broader economy.

Time to start preparing

Proponents of AI are fond of saying that it's not AI that will replace jobs, but someone using AI. While it sounds reassuring at first blush, I don't expect semantics will matter much when entire industries are decimated or flipped on its head.

It's not all gloom and doom though: Some freelancers have reported that demand for their work is up for more demanding and specialised tasks.

I'm a realist. The generative AI genie is out of the box and there's no putting it back. Neither am I going to hide my head in the ground and wish everything away, though this might perhaps be influenced by the fact that retirement isn't an option for me now.

In my view, the only sane strategy is to read the tea leaves and act early to stay ahead of the curve. My plan consists of the following:

  • Work with AI: We need to get better with AI, and the way to do that is to use AI extensively. Grab AI by its horns and plumbing its depths to work faster and smarter. Get to know its strengths and weaknesses; don't ignore AI or dabble with it for 5 minutes and call it a day.
  • Plan ahead: The fact that high-value work remains should serve as an encouragement. We need to be extremely strategic and focus our efforts on high-value tasks and avoid those that are repetitive and mundane.
  • Get even better: Make time to develop competencies beyond what AI can do. For me, this means writing every day, on top of my paying workloads. In a world of fast-food joints that can produce all sorts of burgers at the tap of a button, I want to be one of the few restaurants serving Michelin-level food.

The future of work will undoubtedly be shaped by AI. The key is to prepare for it now by continuously adapting and learning.

How are you preparing today?

Enjoyed reading this? Sign up here to get a digest of my stories in your inbox every week.