The demand for digital freelancers, particularly in writing and coding, has declined by 21% since the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022, according to research conducted by Imperial College Business School, Harvard Business School, and the German Institute for Economic Research.

The research paper, titled “Who is AI Replacing? The Impact of Generative AI on Online Freelancing Platforms,” investigates the influence of generative AI technologies on the demand for creative professionals who work on an hourly basis for various clients. The study analysed data from a global online freelancing platform, covering almost two million job postings across 61 countries over a two-year period from July 2021 to July 2023.

Categories and Findings

The researchers categorised the job roles into three sectors: automation-prone, manual work, and image generation. They tracked the frequency of job postings throughout the two-year period to understand the demand for freelancers and how it was influenced by the introduction of ChatGPT.

The study found that since ChatGPT’s launch, the number of job postings related to writing, software, app and web development, and engineering (automation-prone jobs) had decreased by 21% compared to the pre-ChatGPT period. Freelance jobs in data entry, video and audio editing, and social media post-production were slightly less affected, with a 13% drop. Meanwhile, jobs focused on image generation, such as graphic design and 3D modelling, saw a 17% decline in demand after the introduction of image-generating AI tools.

Supporting Evidence and Sector Awareness

The researchers corroborated these findings by examining Google search volume indexes. The data showed that sectors with a high awareness of generative AI, such as the tech industry, experienced a more significant decline in demand from employers.

Dr Xinrong Zhu, co-author and Assistant Professor of Marketing at Imperial College Business School, commented on the findings: “Despite being available on the market for just over a year, ChatGPT has already had a significant impact on the workplace. Although many organisations may be shifting from freelancers to generative AI, it remains to be seen whether they are satisfied with the quality of work provided by AI compared to freelancers, and whether this trend will continue.”

Future Prospects and Adaptation

Dr Zhu noted that while the current job market might appear bleak, technological advancements historically lead to the emergence of new professions. “For freelancers, adapting their skillsets to the changing landscape will be key to securing work in the future,” she added.

The researchers emphasised that the long-term effects of generative AI on the digital labour market are still uncertain. While the widespread adoption of AI by employers as a replacement for human workers could worsen the existing decline in demand for labour, it might also enhance workers’ productivity and potentially improve earnings.

The Need for Human Skills

Looking forward, the researchers highlighted the ongoing necessity for roles that require a human touch, such as projects demanding creativity, intricate problem-solving, and nuanced understanding. They stressed that the future workplace will need a diverse set of skills and the human intelligence to deliver them.

This research was conducted by Dr Xinrong Zhu, Assistant Professor in Marketing at Imperial College Business School, alongside Dr Ozge Demirci, a Postdoctoral Fellow from Harvard Business School and incoming Imperial Assistant Professor, and Jonas Hannane, a PhD student from the German Institute for Economic Research. The study is available for download on the SSRN website.