Hailey Zeissler doesn’t remember a world without the Internet, cellphones or downloadable apps. She was only 5 months old the day terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. Now 13, the Rosemount eighth-grader is concerned about college debt and thinking about scholarships.
Such is the worldview of the first generation of the 21st century, born into an entirely digital world and on track to become the most diverse in U.S. history.
While it hasn’t been determined exactly when this postmillennial generation begins, most social scientists put the oldest somewhere in middle school, with birth dates in the late 1990s to mid-2000s.
They’ve been called Generation Z, and although this term may not stick, it’s seeping into the mainstream as marketers, demographers and city planners strive to figure out what makes Zeissler and her young friends tick.
“Generations are always redefining the phase of life they’re moving into,” said Neil Howe, a historian/author who studies generational characteristics. “The story of this generation is still being written, because they’re still coming of age.”
Andrea Yesnes has witnessed this generational changing of the guard from the front of her classroom.
She has been teaching seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders at Hopkins North Junior High School for nearly three decades. In the mid-1980s, Yesnes said she could “count on two hands” the number of students who weren’t white. Now 41 percent of students at the Minnetonka school, one of the most racially diverse in the western suburbs, are of color.
“Walking down the hall you see girls in hijabs, white kids, African-American kids. We have a big Hmong population here. … It’s really just about every kind of kid you can imagine,” Yesnes said.
The students, she said, are comfortable with one another.
“It’s not that they don’t see other colors or other religions or differences,” she said. “It’s just that they’re together. It’s not forced. It’s just who they are.”
Franceska Moua, a junior at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis, agrees that this acceptance of diversity sets her peer group apart.
“We have more knowledge of gay rights, HIV and AIDS, so we’re more accepting of it,” said the St. Paul teen. “We’re not putting people down as older generations before.”
Moua, whose mother is Hmong and father is white, describes herself as “definitely proud to be biracial.”
Prejudice and hatred still exist, she said, but she asserted that her generation is “better at discussing hard topics like racism in a healthy way, where each side is hearing each other out.”
“Adults,” she said, “need to learn how to help facilitate this conversation.”
Moua credits social media with helping her generation be more open and assertive.
“We’re a nosy generation,” she said. “We’re talking to each other all the time, on social media or in person. We like to discuss things and figure out solutions to problems. We want to know things. We have it all at our fingertips.”
This lifelong immersion in the digital world also has made the newest generation excellent problem solvers, Yesnes has noticed. They don’t get flustered if things don’t work as planned — they just do a mashup of apps and figure out a workaround.
Yet patience doesn’t come easily to a group that has never heard a busy signal on a phone or waited as the AOL man ran toward a dial-up connection.
“They want it when they want it,” Yesnes said, “and they’re used to getting it.”
It’s dicey to try to characterize a generation as it is forming. Many flower children of the 1960s grew fond of wearing pinstriped suits. And Gen Xers haven’t turned out to be slackers, after all.
But consumer researchers are trying to define America’s youngest generation, and perhaps come up with a snappier name.
Bloomington-based consumer marketing firm Frank N. Magid Associates has landed on the name Plurals or Pluralists, in part because this emerging group represents such a rich diversity of race, culture and religion.
Using the same theme, Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center has taken to calling them the Mosaics, as an updated view of the United States as a melting pot.
“Mosaics is a better metaphor in part because most of our immigrants are not white,” Taylor said. “The idea that you can ‘fully blend’ is not the case, nor does our culture demand it.”
If Zeissler, the Rosemount middle schooler, had to pick a name for her generation, it’d be all about technology — which is so essential that she mowed lawns last summer to buy a laptop. She got her first cellphone in sixth grade and now has a pay-by-the-minute plan she covers mostly with money earned by baby-sitting her three younger brothers.
“ ‘Wi-Fi’ or ‘the texters’ or ‘something with an ‘i,’ ” Zeissler suggested to name her generation, “because when I go around school everybody has iPhones and everybody’s texting.”
The iGeneration tag already is being tossed about, as are names such as postmillennials and digital natives. But Taylor believes the naming of this newest generation remains a work in progress.
“At some point, the light bulb goes on and something says, ‘Aha! We have a cohort that looks something like this,’ ” he said. “But I don’t think we’re there yet.”