Content creation is attractive to laid-off workers looking for flexibility

With a compact mirror in one hand and an eyelash curler in the other, Grace Xu told her approximately 300,000 TikTok followers that she was probably about to get fired.

She was right, she says in the next clip. But she planned to pursue another career anyway: as a content creator.

“I think the decision was made on my behalf,” she tells viewers in the video posted earlier this year. “The universe has spoken.”

By all accounts, the U.S. labor market remains strong, with employers adding 303,000 workers to their payrolls in March. The unemployment rate has now remained below 4% for 26 months in a row, the longest streak since the 1960s.

But that offers little comfort to the thousands of people who are still out of work. The workforce is largely concentrated in a few industries, with technology and finance adding only a small number of jobs over the past twelve months.

However, instead of trying to return to traditional work, people like 26-year-old Xu are carving a new path for themselves through online content creation, where they can make money from brand deals and advertising by producing videos on social media, ranging from educational to entertaining.

“I think most workers now look to employers and no longer think they’re going to find security — permanent security — in a job,” said Sarah Damaske, who studies labor and employment relations and sociology at Penn State. “I think it makes it less risky to do something like that as a content creator, because a job with a traditional employer is so much riskier.”

According to Goldman Sachs Research, 4% of global content creators in an estimated $250 billion industry rake in more than $100,000 annually. YouTube – considered one of the more lucrative platforms by creators – has more than 3 million channels in its YouTube Partner Program, through which creators make money. A spokesperson said the platform has paid out more than $70 billion over the past three years.

Meanwhile, TikTok — which faces the threat of a national ban that could cost many creators a revenue stream — has seen a 15% growth in user monetization, a company spokesperson said.

Many people turn to full-time content creation only after seeing the benefits, says Brooke Erin Duffy, professor of communications at Cornell University. Or they are forced to do so, as a way back to work.

The pandemic has also changed the way employees view work, with many preferring more control over their schedules and the ability to do their work from home. In February, nearly 440,000 people signed up to start their own businesses — up nearly 50% from the monthly figure of 300,000 just before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Among them are content creators, although they probably only make up a small portion.

For Xu, the pandemic allowed her to rediscover her hobbies. She started creating content as @amazingishgrace on TikTok at the time. Her thrift – all hand-sewn – went viral and steadily built a following. Even when she left her banking job to move into the tech sector for a better work-life balance, she continued to create content.

When a series of layoffs occurred last summer, Xu wondered whether she should pursue content creation full-time, despite a deep fear of ruining the things she loved by making it work. Her own dismissal accelerated her timeline.

“You just have to have the belief that once your life opens up to something, it will happen,” she said, “otherwise you’ll go crazy thinking about it.”

Another content creator, who goes by Pot Roast’s Mom on TikTok, described staying in her tech job for so long because she was afraid of not having health insurance while also paying off her student loans. But when her namesake cat, Pot Roast, died two years ago, she turned to content creation full-time.

“Her death just revealed, or I think it opened my eyes, that I didn’t like anything else in my life but her,” says Pot Roast’s mother, who uses her username to protect her privacy. “And when she died, I thought, OK, it’s time to make some changes.”

A community of women in the industry helped her transition from traditional work to full-time content creation by demystifying brand deal pricing and setting payment levels on platforms like Patreon, a subscription service for content creators.

She has 1.2 million followers on TikTok and most of her income came from Patreon last year — about $30,000 — and a small portion came from brand deals, about another $10,000.

Pot Roast’s mom recently saw a video where a woman said creating cat content made her $200,000 in a year. More than likely, she said, that was a one-off.

“I think if you do something like that, you have to be ready to fail, ready to not make a lot of money,” she said. “You have to be realistic.”

Indeed, it takes time, energy and resources to turn content creation into a successful career, Duffy said. Creators must negotiate multi-video brand deals or sponsorships to get some semblance of steady income, but these can have months-long payout dates. Some rely on savings from their traditional careers to fill the gaps while they wait.

“The level of unpredictability when you’re dependent on a platform is quite significant,” she said. “Your success depends on an algorithm or updated community guidelines or an audience that likes or dislikes you on any given day.”

Cynthia Huang Wang tried creating content full-time after being laid off from her brand marketing job in February 2023. In January, she posted a TikTok about her return to the workforce, taking her 164,000 TikTok followers along as she updated her resume. .

As the job market improves, Wang says she sees the appeal of a return to a stable income. Maternity leave from a corporate job also has appeal as she and her husband consider starting a family.

However, there are limitations to what she is willing to return for, including salary, title, and work she is interested in.

“Going back to the office every day would be a non-starter for me,” she said. “I think maybe two or three days at most, because I still want to be able to create content. And I think going to the office every day would really impact that.”


Associated Press Staff Writer Chris Rugaber in Washington contributed to this report.