US Economy Is Booming. So Why Are Tech Companies Laying Off Workers?

Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and a raft of others fired thousands of workers in January, continuing a layoff wave that began in 2022.

The Washington Post

February 5, 2024

7 Min Read
job losses ahead sign

SAN FRANCISCO — The first time Julian Chavez got laid off from his job as a digital ad sales rep at didn't turn him off from the tech industry. Neither did the second time when he was laid off from ZipRecruiter. By the third time, though, Chavez had had enough.

"I really loved what I did," said Phoenix-based Chavez in a text message. "But the layoffs got me jaded." Now he's pursuing a graduate degree in psychology.

Chavez is one of hundreds of thousands of tech workers who've been laid off in the past two years in what now seems like a never-ending wave of cuts that has upended the culture of Silicon Valley and the expectations of those who work at some of America's richest and most powerful companies.

Last year, tech companies laid off more than 260,000 workers according to layoff tracker, cuts that executives mostly blamed on "over-hiring" during the pandemic and high interest rates making it harder to invest in new business ventures. But as those layoffs have dragged into 2024 despite stabilizing interest rates and a booming job market in other industries, the tech workforce is feeling despondent and confused.

The U.S. economy added 353,000 jobs in January, a huge boost that was around twice what economists had expected. And yet, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Discord, Salesforce and eBay all made significant cuts in January, and the layoffs don't seem to be abating. On Tuesday, PayPal said in a letter to workers it would cut another 2,500 employees or about 9 percent of its workforce.

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The continued cuts come as companies are under pressure from investors to improve their bottom lines. Wall Street's sell-off of tech stocks in 2022 pushed companies to win back investors by focusing on increasing profits, and firing some of the tens of thousands of workers hired to meet the pandemic boom in consumer tech spending. With many tech companies laying off workers, cutting employees no longer signaled weakness. Now, executives are looking for more places where they can squeeze more work out of fewer people.

"We're going to continue to be careful on what we invest in, and we're going to continue to invest in new things and new areas and things that resonate with customers. And where we can find efficiencies and do more with less, we're going to do that as well," Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky said in response to a reporter's question during a Thursday media earnings call.

"That is the way the American capitalist system works," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "It's ruthless when it gets down to striving for profitability and creating wealth. It redirects resources very rapidly from one place to another."

Economic concerns and inflation in 2022 and 2023 also cut into the amount of software and cloud services that businesses were buying, said Gil Luria, a tech analyst with D.A. Davidson Co.

"That rippled through the entire software ecosystem, and looking into 2024, it seems like the most recent data points are things are no longer getting worse but they're not getting better yet," Luria said. "Their customers haven't loosened the purse strings."

Unable to get back to the showstopping revenue growth of years past, tech executives are opting instead to put a positive spin on things for Wall Street by continuously cutting high-paid workers instead.

It seems to be working. In 2022, the Nasdaq Composite, a stock index dominated by tech companies, lost a full third of its value. In 2023, it grew by 43 percent. It rose another 3 percent in January.

Shine Has Come Off the Tech Industry

As stocks have risen, spirits in the San Francisco Bay Area — the heart of the U.S. tech industry — have only fallen further. The power that tech workers felt they commanded to switch jobs and win higher salaries and meatier stock awards has partly evaporated.

For many tech workers, the shine has come off an industry that they had given their lives to in return for steady employment, flashy perks and the chance for lucrative stock options. Google and Meta in recent years have cut down on employee perks like free laundry, free massages, and food and fitness offerings. "Seems like tech has changed forever since mass layoffs," an anonymous worker posted to the workplace gossip app Blind this week.

"It's very new to feel job insecurity," said Julia Grummel, a former senior product designer for a Bay Area software company. Since being laid off in February 2023, Grummel says she has received rejections from automated systems, been ghosted by employers after several rounds of interviews and gotten rejections without any feedback. And she's facing competition from huge numbers of other laid-off workers like herself.

She has gotten interest from some companies that have already cut employees, but she's wary of them, Grummel said. "I am not really interested in joining an organization that has demonstrated that they don't value the people who are keeping the business running."

Like Chavez, she says she's beginning to think of looking for other kinds of work, focusing less on pay and more on jobs that may provide better work-life balance and more meaning and fulfillment, she said.

Even workers with years of experience or deep technical expertise are having trouble getting hired again.

Parker Lopez, a machine learning engineer and data scientist in Seattle, was laid off from his job at a health tech start-up in May 2023. The last time he was on the job market several years ago it only took him three months to find work. But this time he's applied for more than 1,000 roles without any success.

"It feels very futile," he said.

Even with several years of experience in software engineering, data science and manufacturing, including at Microsoft, laid-off Amazon contractor Jennifer Pearl said landing an interview has been tough. Pearl said previously they were able to land a job in a matter of days.

"I am worried," they said. "I've been doing this stuff for 20 years … and right now I'm lucky to get a call back. "

Some of the more recent layoffs are targeting middle-managers who ran the teams that were hit in previous waves of cuts. Some of them are trying to return to jobs where they write code rather than direct the work of others, calculating that those roles might be safer. Workers who tried to hop from company to company every three or four years to maximize the amount of stock options they could amass are now staying put.

Tech workers have also been exposed to a year of nonstop discussion of the artificial intelligence boom and its potential impact on the workforce. Many programmers use AI tools to help them write code faster, and executives and tech pundits frequently talk about how much more efficient workers will become in the near future.

Starry-eyed AI executives argue that as workers become more productive, companies will make more money, resulting in more growth and more jobs.

But tech workers themselves aren't so sure. Neither are economists.

"The tech sector may be able to produce a lot and innovate a lot without as many people going forward," Zandi, the Moody's economist, said. "That is a lesson of AI."

Once glitzy, high-paying and highly coveted, tech jobs have become less secure and less attractive to many in recent years. As a result, workers are more willing to take a lower-paying job, make a lateral move, or seek out alternative job opportunities.

For a former Meta user experience researcher in the Bay Area, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid hurting her future employment prospects, the job hunt has been tough since her layoff last April. Originally employed in academia, she joined the industry to expand her knowledge and ensure job security, good benefits and higher pay.

"It was the perception of stability," she said about joining the tech industry. "Yet here we are."

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