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Heard AI is coming for your job? For these copywriters, that 'future' arrived months ago

Science Heard AI is coming for your job? For these copywriters, that 'future' arrived months ago

Leanne Shelton

In 2023, with artificial intelligence (AI) hype at fever pitch, white-collar workers were told that maybe one day soon, their roles would be automated.

Somewhere between a quarter and a half of existing jobs would be replaced, according to high-profile predictions .

A year later, many workers may be scratching their heads. Sure, AI tools are becoming more common, but generally they are some way from automating entire roles.

A real estate agent might use ChatGPT to write a property listing, but AI can't yet open the door of the house.

Still, there are a few professions that are already feeling the bite — and the experiences of these workers may be a helpful insight into what's to come for those who aren't yet affected.

Copywriters, and in particular freelance copywriters, are seeing large parts of their work automated, and their labour devalued.

They're now adapting by learning new AI skills and specialising in the types of work the bots are currently bad at.

So, are these copywriters the canaries in the coal mine for AI-led automation?

Here's what they have to say about the future of work.

An AI tool crashes through a profession

Last year, not long after the launch of ChatGPT, Leanne Shelton braced herself for turbulent times.

The Sydney-based copywriter, who'd built up her freelance business over nine years, knew that change was coming.

And she knew that freelancers, who were less insulated from market shocks than permanent employees, were going to feel the impact first.

For Ms Shelton, business soon started drying up.

"Clients were like, 'There's this free tool. Why would we invest $2,000 for copywriting when we can get something for free?'"

Tim King, a Bendigo-based copywriter, experienced the same.

"I saw a 45 per cent reduction in overall lead generation," he said.

Bendigo-based copywriter and marketing strategist Tim King

Lindsay, a copywriter in Sydney, was made redundant at a cybersecurity firm.

"They wanted to save costs and so they cut my role," she said.

"They thought the executives could write their own content using ChatGPT."

Looking for employment, she was alarmed by how far salaries in her line of work, and at her level of experience, had fallen.

"A job that would have been mid-management level on $120,000 plus super is now around $90,000."

Tanya Abdul Jalil, a freelance education writer, has colleagues "desperately scratching" for work.

"Especially the ones whose blogs are their bread and butter," she said.

"Something that used to take four to five hours and get them a full day's pay can be produced in minutes."

Perth-based copywriter Kara Stokes sees many in her profession left with a simple choice: adapt or get out.

"It’s like Blockbuster Video," she said.

"They didn't adapt and we saw what happened there."

The problem of measuring AI's effects on employment

If AI is already having such a dramatic impact on copywriters, how is this reflected in their workforce statistics?

The short answer is that it's not. Or at least not yet, experts say.

"Workforce statistics always lag reality, right?" Kylie Walker, CEO of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE), said.

"But when you're hearing the same stories arising in multiple places, then it's time to start listening."

Measuring how AI affects employment in general is a problem for economists.

This is partly due to a lack of data. Employers may not be transparent about why they're laying off workers or cutting hours.

The effect of an AI tool that augments an existing role, rather than replacing it, may not show in employment figures either.

A woman with bright pink hair and wearing a pink dress sitting in a wheelchair

But some studies can detect recent trends.

Around midway through last year, three US economists studied jobs and earnings data for copywriters and graphic designers on major online freelancing platforms.

They chose freelancers partly because they were most exposed to the repercussions of AI automation, one of the economists, Washington University's Oren Reshef, said.

"Freelancers are generally less protected from adverse market shocks compared to more standard employment.

"And at the current state of the technology, I believe AI is much better able to replace specific, well-designed tasks, like a short freelance project."

That is, freelancers don't have much job security, and their work is more likely to consist of short, well-defined tasks, which makes it easier to feed this work to AI.

The results of the study were  published as a non-peer-reviewed working paper in August .

They showed within a few months of ChatGPT's launch, copywriters and graphic designers saw a significant drop in the number of jobs they got and even steeper declines in earnings.

And when they dug deeper into the data, the economists found an interesting trend.

Being a more skilled freelancer was no defence against loss of work or earnings. 

This may seem counter-intuitive at first, Dr Reshef said, "but it makes a lot of sense on second thought".

"Who do we expect to benefit the most from a new technology that improves the quality of your work or your output? Probably those that didn't do a great job to begin with.

"Simply put, AI helps level the playing field across all workers."

Automation doesn't mean mass unemployment

Tanya Abdul Jalil

Just as less experienced copywriters might earn more by generating and editing AI content, an experienced copywriter who once earned a decent wage may be paid less to do the same job.

Mr King, the Bendigo-based copywriter, has noticed this trend.

"AI has lowered the bar and increased the ability for [non-copywriters] to generate content," he said.

"Our creative services as a whole have been devalued."

But there's a risk of generalising too much from short-term data like those used in last year's freelancer study, said Xiang Hui, also from Washington University and a co-author of the working paper.

Technology changes, but so do people. AI may improve and be able to automate a higher proportion of existing roles, but people adapt. They learn new skills and apply for new kinds of jobs.

Dr Hui said it's hard to predict what will happen in the long run.

"The technology improves and its capability to replace certain jobs gets better.

"But workers increasingly adopt these new technologies, and the nature of jobs and skills they require may also change over time."

Late last year, ATSE announced that AI could automate 25 to 46 per cent of existing Australian jobs by 2030 .

But automation doesn't equal unemployment, Ms Walker, ATSE CEO, said.

"There will be a shift in where the employment occurs, and in what people are employed for.

"Jobs will be there. They just may not be the jobs that we intimately know today."

Copywriters are adapting to AI

So what can copywriters teach us about adapting to AI?

Having seen the writing on the wall, Ms Shelton, the Sydney-based copywriter, swiftly pivoted to AI coaching last year.

She now earns more from teaching people how to use generative AI tools than she does from copywriting.

"I pretty much started listening to podcasts and reading books about AI," she said.

"[When] 150 people registered for the first webinar, I realised I was onto something."

A woman sits in front of a computer open to a screen showing purple and green colours

Zoe Simmons, who has physical and mental disabilities, said her type of writing — focusing on her experience of disabilities — meant she'd avoided the downturn.

"Thankfully lived experience is something a robot or AI cannot do," she said.

Mr King has rebranded as a marketing strategist, advising clients on how to promote their product, rather than just writing copy.

And when he does write copy, he uses AI.

"For me, it's a tool that I use to infinitely speed up my processes. 

"Potentially AI will take your job but at the end of the day it means we can shift into higher value work."

Whether or not AI means workers end up doing less of the drudge work, early studies show it can boost the efficiency of "knowledge workers" (such as analysts, engineers, and accountants) at some tasks.

In a recent Harvard Business School study , employees at Boston Consulting Group were randomly assigned access to GPT-4, OpenAI's latest large language model. 

Those using AI completed 12.2 per cent more tasks while doing them 25.1 per cent faster. They also produced higher quality work compared to those not using AI.

As with the freelancer study, the least-skilled workers benefited the most from AI.

"People in the lower half of that distribution had a much larger productivity bump," Edward McFowland, co-author of the Harvard study,  said at the time .

"But on average, everyone seems to do better.”

AI can be helpful, but sometimes not

These findings may sound simple enough, but there's one big catch that has implications for how AI may be used to automate office work.

When the Boston Consulting Group consultants were given tasks beyond a certain threshold of complexity and nuance, those who used AI did worse.

That is, AI isn't always helpful.

Sometimes, it makes workers worse at their jobs.

And it gets still more complicated. Some AI-assisted consultants bucked the trend and did better at the more complex tasks than those not using AI.

The researchers' conclusion may be heartening for any white-collar worker concerned that a wave of automation will sweep them out of the office. 

AI use should be tightly supervised and — at least for now — reserved for a narrow range of tasks, Dr McFowland said.

"Companies cannot simply ignore these tools, because they have tremendous value that their competitors will be exploiting," he said.

"However, turning them loose on all use cases can have an array of detrimental consequences."

Has the impact of AI been overstated?

Companies that ditched their copywriters may be experiencing the "detrimental consequences" of having too much faith in AI, according to those same copywriters.

Freelancers report old clients getting back in touch and admitting the bot's copy wasn't up to scratch.

"It has a very Americanised tone, the grammar is all off, and the sentiment is a bit strange as well," Mr King said.

"I've noticed a swing back to copywriters."

An MIT study published last month suggested AI won't replace as many jobs as predicted by studies in 2023.

Jobs previously identified as being at risk of AI displacement weren't currently "economically beneficial" to automate.

For instance, in some cases, buying and maintaining AI systems to automate certain tasks was more expensive than employing a human.

If 2023 was the year of AI hype, 2024 may see the excitement cool to a gentle simmer as reality sets in.

In any case, the job of copywriting won't ever be the same.

"We're not going to sit there and write a 300-word synopsis any more," Mr King said.

"That's in the past. We can give that to ChatGPT."

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Taylor Swift on stage

My daughter and I missed out on tickets to Taylor Swift – but I’m not sorry

Our shared memories – the concerts, favourite songs, matching outfits – will last forever

I t is 10.51 am on Sunday morning and I have just a few minutes to try to secure Taylor Swift Eras tickets for her last show in Melbourne. I am watching the clock count down on the Ticketek Marketplace website, refreshing the browser every few seconds. Next to the last date for the Melbourne leg of the tour, two greyed-out words state “none available”.

Ticketek allows 10 minutes before the website times out. I have discovered it is more like 15 minutes and, in that time, you are desperately hoping someone out there is selling tickets at the precise moment you want to buy them. It is a narrow window and, so far, I am out of luck.

Taylor Swift came into my life inadvertently through my daughter. She was a diehard Swiftie from the age of 10. As the only super fan in her friendship group, I became her wing woman and had no choice but to get onboard. Taylor became not just a constant in both of our lives but the thing that brought us together during my daughter’s teenage years. There was the 1989 concert with matching outfits and the Reputation tour, where we somehow managed to get seats seven rows from the front. I will never forget the moment when Taylor liked one of my daughter’s Instagram posts. The whole family revelled in that achievement for days.

The obsession really took hold when the album 1989 was released. My daughter was 11 and just about to start high school. As a music-loving family, 1989 was an album we all enjoyed listening to; even my indie-music-loving partner loved it. 1989 was a groundbreaking record for Taylor, launching her into a stratospheric pop career. It was also a seminal album for me and my family beyond the music.

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Not long after the release of 1989, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to undergo major surgery. After spending two days in the ICU and being bedridden for another three, I was instructed to get up and get moving. I vividly remember wheeling my catheter bag and vital signs monitor down the hallway of the hospital, listening to Taylor’s Out of the Woods on repeat. The line “20 stitches in a hospital room” resonated on a deep level.

At the time, I was in the “in-between” stage that a lot of cancer patients find themselves in, where you don’t know what lies ahead. Thankfully, the surgery went well, and the margins were good. A few weeks after the surgery, I was told that I was one of the lucky ones. Three months later, I was sitting on a white plastic chair at AAMI Park, seeing Taylor in concert at the 1989 tour. I distinctly remember feeling overwhelmed with gratitude at how fortunate I was to be doing this with my daughter. We were both elated and it is an evening that is forever etched in my memories.

My daughter is now 20. She moved out of home six months ago and is working hard to save money to travel. She is a smart and confident young woman who knows herself and is also incredibly kind and thoughtful. As a parent, I would love to take the credit but I know that it was not all me. I am certain that I have Taylor Swift to thank for being a great role model and a solace to her when she needed it most.

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Melbourne's Love Story with Taylor Swift – video

Over the last couple of years, my daughter’s Swift obsession seemed to have lessened as she became an adult. I asked her last week if I could get tickets to the Eras concert; would she want to go? Her response was, “Of course, once a Swiftie, always a Swiftie!”

It is now 20 minutes after 12pm on Sunday afternoon. The concert starts in six hours, and I have missed the 12pm deadline for resale. But I am not sorry. This week, as I have tried to get tickets, I have had many flashbacks to those Swiftie years. When the concert starts, I will be reminiscing about all those times spent with my daughter, making outfits and decorating signs, listening to Taylor in the car on the way home from school, and eagerly waiting for new songs to drop. I will be thinking about all the young girls attending the concert with their parents. Many of them will be seeing Taylor for the first time, and I will be quietly ecstatic that they are making memories that will last a lifetime.

Bridget Robertson is a freelance writer based in Bendigo

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