In a survey of 1,000 knowledge workers in the U.S. 73% said that the waves of layoffs over the last two years have made freelance work more attractive than before.
86% said they would like to have more control and flexibility over their work schedule than traditional full-time employment can offer.
67% said the emergence of generative AI technologies has made freelance work more attractive.
In the second week of January, Brittany Pietsch, an account executive at Cloudflare, sat down for a suspicious 10-minute call with HR. Secretly, she set up her phone to record whatever happened next.
Two anonymous HR people she had never met before unceremoniously told her she was being let go for performance-related issues. But Pietsch was ready. She had already caught wind that other people on her team were getting a similar explanation.
"I'm gonna stop you right there,” Pietsch said, before defending her performance, reminding them that she had only been on the team for three months—a period that included the holiday break—and suggesting that the real reason she was being fired had more to do with Cloudshare “overhiring.”
When she posted the story to her thousands of TikTok followers, the video went viral, tapping into the frustration that many tech workers feel right now. There’s an enduring sense of betrayal, even if the pace of the layoffs has waned.
Though the scale of cuts has lessened, there have been plenty so far this year: Twitch, Amazon, Duolingo, Brex, and Google are among the companies that have reduced headcount. On top of that, CEOs are talking incessantly about replacing people with AI. A blog post from the head of the IMF predicted that 60% of jobs in advanced economies would be impacted by the rise of AI. Some big tech companies are already pointing to a renewed focus on AI as a justification for layoffs.
Propelled by these macro forces, there’s an ongoing shift in sentiment—a change in how workers think about their jobs. Our collective trust in full-time employment is faltering. If the security of a big tech job is no longer the aspirational goal, what will replace it?
Last year we surveyed 500 knowledge workers to find out how the massive wave of big tech layoffs impacted employees' feelings about their jobs. The results were dramatic: respondents resoundingly wanted more flexibility and autonomy and did not feel secure committing to one employer. Our findings sparked a viral workforce trend, The Great Betrayal.
As the layoffs tapered off slightly over the course of 2023—and AI emerged—we wanted to return to knowledge workers to see if their sentiments had changed.
This time we surveyed 1,000 knowledge workers and right away it was obvious that the trend was entrenched. The results from this year were almost exactly the same as last year—within the margin of error. The appeal of freelance work for knowledge workers and the push away from full-time work are both enduring.
In a survey of 1,000 knowledge workers in the US:
- 86% said they would like to have more control and flexibility over their work schedule than traditional full-time employment can offer.
- 73% said that the waves of layoffs over the last two years have made freelance work more attractive than before.
- 61% said that the waves of layoffs have made them feel less secure committing to one employer.
- 60% said that the waves of layoffs over the last two years have motivated them to rethink the focus of their careers.
- 64% said that the waves of layoffs have made them lose trust in the stability and security of full-time employment.
- 67% said the emergence of generative AI technologies has made freelance work more attractive.
These results reflect a major ongoing shift in how highly-skilled workers feel about full-time employment. Last year we saw signs of The Great Betrayal: a stinging sense that the promise of the reliability of full-time employment had been shattered. This year, we’ve discovered that this wasn’t just a one-time deal. Some workers feel so betrayed that they’re juggling two full-time jobs without alerting either company. As one such worker explained: "My parents told me, 'Don't switch companies, grow in one company, be loyal to one company, and they'll be loyal to you.’ That may have been true in their days, but it definitely isn't today anymore." Loyalty, it seems, is at an all-time low on both sides.
Our findings suggest that freelancing is emerging as a safe haven for tech workers. After two years of turmoil in tech, people are fundamentally changing the way they work. In our data, we’ve discovered two major trends:
1. Knowledge workers still feel betrayed by the empty promises of traditional full-time employment
“The veil of invincibility has been pierced.”
That’s a quote from Jeff Spector—the CEO of Karat, a tech-interviewing platform—explaining to CNBC how Silicon Valley may have lost its monopoly on workers after another round of big tech job cuts.
This frustration isn’t new. We knew from our survey last year that many workers felt betrayed following the deluge of callous layoffs, as the illusion of stability in full-time employment was broken. In asking many of the same questions again, we found that these sentiments haven’t changed. Even as layoffs have slowed over the past year, that sense of betrayal remains.
The vast majority of respondents (86%) said they would like to have more control and flexibility over their work schedule than traditional full-time employment can offer. Some 60% of knowledge workers said that the waves of layoffs over the last two years have motivated them to rethink the focus of their careers. And 73% said that the recent waves of layoffs have made freelance work more attractive than before.
The fact that this year’s responses are remarkably similar to last year’s suggests that this trend isn't just a temporary reaction to the current job market but a fundamental rethinking of career paths and work-life balance.
2. Freelance work is even more attractive in the age of AI
The proliferation of generative AI only seems to expedite this trend. Of the knowledge workers we asked, 67% said the emergence of generative AI makes freelance work even more attractive. And of people who are already freelancing, that number jumps to 74%. We can speculate on why this might be the case—one possible reason is that AI skills are more lucrative as a freelancer than as a FTE because of the broader skills shortage.
Three out of four independent workers say there’s been an uptick in freelance opportunities in their industry over the past year. The freelance economy, already valued at $5.4 trillion, is expected to grow as companies increasingly hire independent workers. And, as an upcoming study of AI productivity gains will show, builders in the A.Team network reported seeing their overall earning power increase by an average of 12% since the advent of generative AI.
At the same time, less than half of laid-off workers are looking for another full-time role within the same field; 26% are pivoting to an entirely new field, while the other 25% have decided to forgo full-time employment altogether by freelancing or starting their own business.
These findings underscore a paradigm shift in the white-collar world—a growing number of workers not just seeking but thriving in the freelance market. As traditional employment models are forced to become less rigid, the rise of a dynamic, AI-enhanced freelance economy reflects a future where work is more personalized, adaptable, and aligned with the evolving aspirations of the modern worker.
This story was originally published in Fast Company.