10 Ways Freelancing Has Changed in the Last Decade

time-passingFreelancing has been around since Sir Walter Scott coined the term in Ivanhoe—but the lances of medieval mercenaries have long since given way to pens, paintbrushes, and whatever creative tools of the trade we can wield.

As much as freelancing has changed over the centuries, the changes have been many and major over just the past ten years. Here are ten ways the industry has shifted since Y2K came and went, but all of them are at least indirectly caused by one major development—Internet supremacy.

1. The Slow, Sure Demise of Print Journalism

Newspapers publish daily (sometimes even more frequently), which made them an ideal client for anyone in the business of selling their creative services. There is just so much work to be done for any newspaper—or at least there was.

The rise of the Internet over the last ten plus years has all but killed the newspaper industry, especially when it comes to their freelance budgets. Some papers have successfully navigated the switch to an online business model, but frequently that switch comes at the expense of the sheer quantity of content typically printed in a daily rag.

There are still freelance journalists and illustrators to be sure, but the market is severely restricted when compared to just ten years ago. Most sponsors view newspaper advertising as a lost cause, so unless you’re willing to work for free, you have probably moved on to other clients.

2. The Birth and Boon of Blogging

Even if you knew what a blog was in the year 2000, you still would have drawn strange looks if you used the word in public. That all changed in the blink of an eye, though, as the medium exploded to take the creative community by storm.

Within the span of one year (between October 1998 and September 1999), the blogging services Open Diary, LiveJournal, Pitas and Blogger all launched onto the face of the World Wide Web (a term that, like newspapers, didn’t survive the decade). Now it’s almost impossible to freelance without being affected (or paid) by blogging.

Whether you use blogging to promote your own services, generate revenue, or as a service to clients, blogging is now an essential part of the freelance market.

3. Digital Design

If you’ve been in the graphic design business for over a decade, you probably remember when “Camera Ready Art” was a standard term and final designs were preserved not on servers, but on film. There’s no question that design began to enter the digital realm in the last millennium, but the point when it stepped all the way across the threshold is still fresher in history than you might think.

The tools and equipment afforded to any graphic designer today are light years ahead of what was considered state-of-the-art in 1999. Just ask yourself this question: when is the last time you used a light table? If you work full-time in a design studio, you might use one regularly. But as a freelancer? Almost all the graphic design tools you need are computerized.

4. Web Design

The end of the 1990s is traditionally known as the tail end of the dot-com bubble—but after the initial tidal wave of Internet-only startups crashed and burned, the trend carried over to traditionally brick-and-mortar companies in the ’00s. And the freelance Web design industry took off.

Throughout the 2000s, the philosophy that every company in existence must have a Web site became gospel truth practically the world over (developing countries entered the Internet age en masse after 2000). This created a tremendous supply of work for freelance copywriters, Web designers, and programmers—Web consultants are still making a fortune off of companies who still don’t really get how the Interwebs work.

5. The 2.0 Way of Life (beta)

We’ll touch on social media specifically later, but the onset of Web 2.0 in the middle of the last decade has been an answer to the prayers of freelance programmers (and to some extent other creatives and consultants as well).

When various sites around the net became fully interactive—where visitors became content generators as well as users—the online experience took on a much more fluid and organic presence. It became the norm for user platforms and social networks to adopt the “beta” tag on a permanent basis because the need to satisfy the digital whims of customers emerged as the number one priority.

As a result, the job of a developer is never done. The needs and desires of users are constantly changing and developing as new fads and technological breakthroughs evolve—for the 2.0 freelancer, life in the 00s was pretty darn good.

6. Social Media

For the freelancer, your network is your livelihood. If you can’t maintain connections with a diverse set of contacts, you’re better off finding a full-time gig. Social media is now an indispensable part of a freelancer’s repertoire, and many of us don’t know how we ever survived without it.

LinkedIn allows creative professionals to promote their image through a network of trust and credibility like never before. Facebook helps us find business from every phase of our past lives. And Twitter, among other things, notifies freelancers in real time of new jobs as they open in all fields of the freelancing world.

Beyond the connectivity of it all, social media generates plenty of freelance work in its own right. Any time a new medium gains traction in the marketplace, many companies are slow to commit full-time resources to it. In the 2000s, employers were much more willing to contract out social-media ventures, which lined the pockets of many a freelancer.

7. Broadband Killed the Fax Machine

When Internet was in its dial-up infancy in the ’90s, it was a helpful tool for freelancers, and in many ways essential. Most self-employed professionals needed a home office with a fully stocked arsenal of machines: a fax, a printer, preferably a copier as well, and at least three different phone lines to make it all work.

When broadband connections hit the mainstream, though, that shrunk the office hardware of the average freelancer. All in all, it’s cheaper and simpler to run your own office. Final jobs are emailed or uploaded. Burning discs is a thing of the past, and faxes are all but fossilized. The buzzing and whirring sounds of a dial-up data connection will not be missed.

8. The Mother of All Recessions

When the economy tanked, many freelance experts posited that the contractor business would thrive. Companies would cut full-time positions and search instead for freelance help. And if you’ve found that to be true, fantastic.

The preference for freelance work often works the other way. In a down economy in which many formerly full-time creative types are forced into looking for short-term work, the going rate for freelancers is shrinking in many areas. Freelancers are just willing to work for less—sometimes drastically less, to the tune of 10-25% of what you may have charged for comparable work (even if it is of far inferior quality).

The bottom line: when businesses are strapped for cash and they shrink their budgets, that’s not good news for anybody.

9. PPC and SEO

Two new markets born into the freelance world in the ’00s were pay-per-click advertising and search-engine optimization. Run those abbreviations by anyone in the ’90s, and no one would have had a clue. Now, it’s almost pointless to even spell them out.

Led by Yahoo!’s Overture and Google’s AdWords, the business of selling ad space based on the number of clicks or active interest shown in the product or service advertised (and forced to the top of search results) seemed like an obvious killer advantage for sponsors. Again, this new outlet became a freelancer-enriched environment. It still didn’t replace the need to draw people to your site the old-fashioned way: the main search results.

Marketers and copywriters who could turn copy into clicks by shooting sites into the number one position on Google is a service every client wants (but very few understand). Both endeavors generated plenty of income to freelancers as well.

The genre changes just as quickly as it became popular. The preferences of the average searcher and the results seen by clients make a freelancer’s ability to adapt to the shifting market an absolute necessity as we head into the ’10s.

10. You Tell Us.

The experience of every freelancer is different. Many of us specialize in one specific service or industry while other freelancers feed their families by being jacks (or Jills) of all trades. What’s true for the masses might not be true for you.

So, tell us how you’ve seen freelancing change in the last ten years, and feel free to make your predictions for where it’s going. What are you doing to adapt? Are you new to freelancing or are you ready to give up? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for helping this community survive and thrive in 2010 and beyond!

Image by craiglea


  1. says

    Ritu – Great post! Another important trend that emerged this past decade was the expansion of freelancing to non-creative fields. Today, non-creative professionals such as engineers, bookkeepers, accountants, project managers, administrative assistants, business development experts, attorneys, paralegals, translators, software developers and dozens of other professions can be done on a freelance basis. I think this is a very encouraging trend, and a clear sign that we’re quickly becoming a free-agent economy.

    Regarding your point about the recession and how it has hurt freelancers, I disagree somewhat. If you typically work for clients (or go after prospects) that have commoditized your profession or your job, then yes, you’ve probably felt the impact. But if you’ve positioned yourself as a highly differentiated resource — the obvious choice — and if you’re going after clients that recognize the true value you bring to the table, then you’re probably doing very well right now.

    Fortunately, this is something many freelancers can change about their business. It’s never too late to refocus or reposition yourself

  2. says

    Don’t forget about the boom of email blasts and how it overtook direct mail in terms of marketing. I started freelancing full time 10 years ago, so it’s interesting to read this article and reminisce about how things have shifted during that time.

  3. says

    I haven’t been freelancing long enough to have experienced any changes myself. However, what I do see are emerging trends – and they seem very positive for anybody who can’t or won’t fit into the corporate mold.

    I’m very excited for the opportunities these changes are providing to creative types, as well as – as Ed mentioned – those in the non-creative fields. The Internet and other technological developments are allowing us to make a living from home, or anywhere we would like to work, for that matter.

    I hope to see the demise of the “starving artist” in my lifetime.


  4. says

    This is in regards to the USA.

    I’m seeing an uptick in freelance outsourcing among small businesses. As well, since MBA grads are coming out of college and there aren’t enough jobs, they are joining startups or forming startups. A recent NYTimes article in December also confirms this. Some are even doing this before graduating. So, I’m seeing that American entrepreneurship is way up in Q4 2009, and most of those ideas have either some sort of web or mobile development and design component, as well as confirms your opinion about social media being critical.

    Part of my problem as a freelancer is weeding through proposals in a timely manner to determine rates, tasks, and timelines. Another part is in deciding which client to run with who agree to the rates and appear to have the funding. Something I read recently, and I think will take off, is to use VAs to do this task, or some of this task, so that freelancers can focus more on the technical aspects of their business and less so on getting and securing the business. Low-cost offshore VAs are critical for this. And the first step is to document your needs very meticulously, and then shop around for a good VA on Twitter.

    Another thing I’m seeing, which is remarkable, are that just as fast as you can think of a great web idea, someone is already out there with a website doing that very thing. Your angle then, as a freelancer, is — can you do it better?

    Last another recent thought I had in 2009 was risk management on new web ideas. I mean, do you want to build that subscriber site that does X and Y and grow and manage that, or do you want to build it and flip the site for $10,000? Lately I have often felt the latter.

  5. says

    As I read your post, I felt old, lol but also realized how quickly things have changed and continue to evolve. In my opinion it is one of the most exciting times in our history to be a solo professional. I predict that as the traditional workforce continues to quickly move to a distributed work force (including a mix of freelancers and employees) that we’ll see a rise in collaborative work models. While centralized workforces shrink we will see people organize themselves into work groups on and offline.

  6. says

    Can’t argue with this, freelancing has definitely become easier with all of the helpful resources and tools now available online. You have forums, blogs, wikis, podcasts, and loads of web 2.0 content all devoted to teaching you how to become a freelancer. It’s information literally at the tips of your fingers!

  7. says

    So much has changed! But all for the good for freelancers. Outsourcing has become a more common and acceptable way to do business now. I agree with Ed here, more non-creative jobs are being done by freelancers. I see a huge increase in social media marketing in the years to come. Consumers are more savvy now than ever and it’s through social media that businesses can reach them and cultivate them better.

  8. Charles brooks says

    There’s career politicians and chopping their salaries in half. A group known as Citizens for a movement to radically change California government, by getting rid of California Reform wants to make the California legislature a part time time job, just like it was until 1966.

    part time work

  9. says

    happy holidays!

    nice post and well summerized.
    Here in france things are a little slow, most companies have cut their “design” budgets
    and little companies have been more “creative” at finding ways to fulfill their advertisement needs
    – cheeper and less professionnal designs
    – revamping 2009 work, done by the printer (happy to have some easy work)
    – or just not do any advertisement

  10. says

    Great article. I think many of the changes are very positive. For instance used wisely Social Media can help us compete easier with big business and get our name out there better than before. My favourite change though hast to be the death of the fax machine…!

  11. says

    You versed really well the whole issue. We are in fact very much gifted by the technology, thank God; lots of things have been changed for the sake of mankind. Five years ago it was tough to decide as well as hazardous too to endeavor the whole effort in freelancing. Now it is much more safe and profitable to invest your full time and labor than any smart job. It is true that we are now at the doorstep of the downturn of the economy. And it is also true that in future many business companies will be erased due to their rigid and one type business policy. In other way freelancing is a social media, it connects people and it discusses the subject related to the public. In freelancing, people from all over the world with different point of view can participate. We can have the unity in diversified approach. That thing definitely entertains us.

  12. says

    Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and return to read more of 10 Ways Freelancing Has Changed in the Last Decade | FreelanceFolder . Thanks for the post. I will definitely return.

  13. says

    I am not sure where you are getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more. Thanks for excellent information I was looking for this info for my mission.


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