What sort of person would you imagine exchanging a new phone for an older model? If you ask me, I would probably assume it’s someone who is certainly older than I am.
I have not always been sold on the classics. My response to any suggestion of The Office was the same—a Michael Scott “NOOOOOO!” gif.
With social apps on my phone as a constant companion, and streaming service engines like Netflix and HBO churning new shows faster than can be watched, I saw no need to revert to old television.
But when I stumbled upon Fran Drescher’s The Nanny, a pleaser centering on a saleswoman’s foray into nannying for a wealthy widower and his children, I was immediately hooked on consuming millennial-aged entertainment. Soon after, I was invested in Rachel and Ross’s argument over their “break” on Friends. Then I welcomed the humdrum of hating one’s work in The Office.
I’m not alone. While many think today’s youth has ditched long-form entertainment for stilted Instagram posts and TikTok videos, we still delve into our fair share of extended television series. According to Horowitz Research, over half of Gen-Z kids consume televised entertainment and interact with TV on a near-daily basis. In terms of access, the difference between having a phone and TV service is even smaller.
So when young people are still watching TV and the megaliths of entertainment are still producing them, how do two shows spanning the late 90s and early 2000s float to the top? Netflix’s users delivered 3% of their total viewing hours to The Office alone in 2019; Friends was close behind.
When Netflix announced the removal of the shows from their streaming service, the sky nearly fell— until other streaming services picked them up.
What partially contributes to our turn to older TV is present-day pop culture’s failure to speak to the youth experience. Gen-Z is the loneliest generation in recent memory. Where our predecessors sought driver’s licenses, in-person hangouts, and parties, our immediate access to illusory forms of connection via videogame chats and social media feeds have provided us with a sense of connection. That sense has proven false. Gen-Zers express feelings of stress and depression at rates nearly double their parents. Many young people use new tools to stay connected.
This is perhaps why Friends is so attractive. Filmed before the infiltration of phones into every facet of our lives, these six friends lived via simple interactions. They were the mundanity and humanity in relationships—those that however challenged were undoubtedly authentic. For the Gen-Zer distanced in the solitude of an Instagram ethos, these innately personal connections seem warm and desirable.
Beyond relationships, our generation’s future also remains unclear. Whereas many American parents and grandparents once owned their homes, we emerge at a decline in this opportunity. Young people’s buying power is over 80% down from Baby Boomers at the same age. Climate and political conflict also weigh large as an inheritance for Gen-Z’s solution avenues.
For viewers of The Office, the lackluster future and unfortunate prospects of Americans in the workforce are brought to life with comedic effect. With gloomy prospects ahead, there’s something comforting about watching others endure a similarly meager livelihood. Those who work in The Office are comically effective because they are, in essence, pitiful. When Gen-Z’s prospects seem equally uncertain, there’s a comfort to be found in the relatability of the show’s characters.
If groups of friends or office-goers can better speak to young people than the products of our legacy, perhaps Addison Rae and other TikTok “prodigies” blabbering on young people’s TV shows is an unfortunate reminder of our own dissatisfaction. By extension, that means Gen-Z is not turning back to old TV, but instead staring at the contrast of their dreams clashing with reality in a televised display.
In that split, classics like Friends and The Office offer points of escape better than any show of the present can. What remains to be seen is whether Gen-Z can feed this resonance in recapturing control of its future.