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How to define the next generation?

Today's tech-savvy tots could also be Depression-era throwbacks.

CHICAGO - They aren't even out of grade school. But already, people are trying to name the youngest up-and-coming generation, and figure out who they might be and how they might be different from their predecessors.

At a loss for something more original, many call them Generation Z, because they follow Generations X and Y. They've also been referred to as Generation Net or iGen, since they've never known a world without the Internet.

That's the one point most everyone can agree on - that they are the tech-savviest generation of all time, so much so that even toddlers can maneuver their way through YouTube and some first graders can put together a PowerPoint presentation for class.

But beyond that, who are they, really? Most agree it is too early to know for sure. But that hasn't stopped marketers from trying to figure out this young crowd of consumers. Or employers from attempting to prepare for them in the workplace.

Parents, too, are weighing in, saying they are raising a different brand of kid than baby boomers did. "I would like to think that ideally, and this might be a bit naive, Gen Xers are a bit more freethinking and not necessarily as compelled to keep up with the Joneses," says Kris Sonnenberg, 38, a Chicago mother of three, ages 8, 12, and 17.

Many parents also think the recession will play a role in shaping their children, and perhaps make them less "entitled," a label that - fair or not - has been slapped frequently on Generation Y, also known as the "millennials." "We're not afraid to say money's tight, so I feel like our kids are going to have that sense long-term," says Andrew Egbert, 41, who works in manufacturing in Greensboro, N.C. He has a son in fifth grade and a daughter in first.

The picture of Gen Z that is emerging is that they are roughly age 12 or younger. Generational expert Neil Howe says determining who these youngsters are still is very much a work in progress, "but there are hints from history."

Howe says 2008 may turn out to be one year with a big influence on this generation, due to both the recession and the election of the nation's first black president. He calls them "homelanders" because they are growing up in a time of "greater public urgency and emergency," both at home and abroad.

For that reason, he speculates they could be a new version of the so-called Silent Generation, the group that grew up in the Depression era, who saw the country through World War II, and who birthed the baby boomers. That generation was pegged as hardworking and anything but entitled.

Janet Reid, who also has spent time looking at this latest generation, thinks that's a pretty fair appraisal. "It won't be taken for granted that prosperity is guaranteed," says Reid, a managing partner at Global Novations, a firm that helps corporations develop and attract workers.

Because they are so hooked into screens of all kinds at a such a young age, she sees Gen Z as more conscious of world events. She also thinks this generation will take characteristics affiliated with Gen Y to a new level - whether multitasking or a comfort level with different races, ethnicities, and cultures.

Seven-year-old Ryan Cook's parents have noticed many of these traits in him. Asked what a recession is, he can tell you that it has to do with the economy and the fact that his parents can't always buy him the things he wants, like video games. "But I think that's fair," he says.

He can tell you that President Obama is the nation's first black president, but - as one whose elementary classroom in suburban Chicago is much more diverse than his parents' - that doesn't seem to faze him much. "Well, the president is the president," he says nonchalantly. "They don't really change much, except for different speeches."

Like a lot of children his age, he gets frustrated when he has to sit through TV commercials. He uses his father's laptop by himself with ease. And though he doesn't have a cell phone, he wants one. That fits with the notion that, recession or not, this generation has a big expectation when it comes to technological gadgets. And in many instances, parents buying those gadgets for them.

That's not surprising to Colin Gounden, a research specialist who thinks access to technology will play a big role in determining which Gen Zers thrive. "There is a segmentation of haves and have-nots that is very global. If you are in Mississippi or Bangalore, if you don't have Internet, your experience is quite parallel," says Gounden.

He also speculates that this generation is more likely to be debt-ridden, partly because getting a college degree will be as important for them as a high school diploma was for their grandparents.

But some question whether the recession will affect this generation the way many think it will. Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has written books about entitlement in young people. She cites a recent poll from the 2010 Cassandra Report, compiled by the market research firm Intelligence Group, which found 81 percent of 7- to 13-year-olds expect to have their "15 minutes of fame."

"Every arrow points in the direction of continued high expectations and optimism," Twenge says. "Things might be bad sometimes, but they think they will make it."