I just returned from a month in New Orleans molding young minds and creating a future generation of leaders so influential and game-changing that they’ll eventually need CGPR to manage their PR. That is, if they could just manage to stay in their seats for longer than two minutes and internalize the fact that there need not be an international incident each time your frenemy (of which these kids have many) accidentally uses your pen without asking. That’s right…for one month, I was an elementary school teacher. Bard College, where I’m going into my junior year, runs a program that offers free summer enrichment programs to students in New Orleans from kindergarten to eighth grade. Spending eight hours a day, five days a week with these kids gave me a sense, however superficial, of what the newest generation is like.

It seems to me as though generations are most remembered for their teenage years – we associate the Baby Boom with the 60s (Woodstock, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Vietnam War protests, etc.), Gen X with the early 90s (grunge, flannel, 90210, soul-crushing cynicism, etc.) and my generation – those of us born from the mid 80s to the mid 90s, with right now (Facebook, YouTube, Lady Gaga, extremely bleak prospects for our futures, etc.) By that logic, it will be well over a decade before anyone pays attention to the unique trends among this latest batch of newcomers. But spend any time at all with this newest generation, that naturally, after X and Y, we’re calling “Z”, and you’ll learn that they’re already different from their predecessors. First grade today is not what it was back when I was kickin’ it. Here’s a brief rundown of what I noticed:


They already have iPods! They plan on getting iPhones! They admire the iPad for its graphics! They’re in SECOND GRADE!! In general, today’s elementary school students know at least as much about the hottest new trend as I do – they are wired in. At least my generation remembers, however foggily, a time before the Internet. But this generation was born into Google and iPods and social networking, and they have little concept of the world without them. We’re really starting these kids early.

It also seems as though every generation is ahead of the last one by a couple of years. In other words, these kids listen to the type of music that we wouldn’t have listened to until we were 10 or 11. They’re very young kids – emotionally and physically they’re still just babies, but they listen to music and wear clothing usually marketed to tweens. My first graders loved Justin Bieber, and can recite all the lyrics from his newest song. Especially popular among these 7-year-olds is “OMG,” the newest single by Usher and Will.i.am., and again, they all know all the words. Something about hearing a 7-year-old sing, “Honey got a booty like pow, pow, pow; Honey got some boobies like wow, oh wow,” is disconcerting.

At that age I knew songs from Sesame Streets and Disney movies – I listened to the radio when people drove me to and from places, but I didn’t much care what was on it. The Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and Hansen were the Justin Bieber equivalents when I was in first grade, but generally it was only the kids in middle school, not those in elementary school, who paid them any mind. They love Beyonce and Miley Cyrus, but most of all, they love Lil Wayne, who is a native of New Orleans and something of a legend down there. They ask their peers their favorite Lil Wayne song, and often recite lyrics. I am not sure whether or not they know what the lyrics actually mean, but I sincerely hope they don’t.

Another surprising tidbit: as well as they know and love Lil Wayne, they’re all obsessed with Michael Jackson, which came as something of a shock since it seemed they weren’t aware of anything made before 2007. One second grader tried to teach me how to moonwalk (he was far better than I was), and another taught me the chorus of Billie Jean. These kids know music. They’ve already formed personal tastes in music, something I didn’t really do until I was a teenager. So in first grade today, what’s different about liking music? The fact that you like music at all.


Generation Z, especially the girls, dress like they’re posing for Bop Magazine in 1998. Everything is bright pink with sequins and studs and sparkles. The clothes are tight, and belly-button shirts and Sketchers are still very much a thing. A very sweet and quiet girl often wore shirts saying, “BRAT,” “PRINCESS” or “DIVA.” From my perspective, it seemed as though the latter half of the 2000s was a direct reaction against this questionable trend – people eventually realized that these are not characteristics we should be encouraging kids to emulate. Apparently I was wrong, and this is another example of how this generation is prematurely adolescent in both attitude and attire. A second grade girl carried around a notebook with a caricature of a very curvaceous, scantily-clad vixen (think Bratz dolls) saying, “Your boyfriend thinks I’m hot.” Kindergarten girls know how to “crump” dance, and do so often. People always talk about the innocence of childhood. I’m starting to wonder.


I was a young kid in the 90s, when, by almost all standards, the world was in better shape than it is now. I remember asking my mom what she was reading in the newspaper, and she told me she was reading about “bad guys.” As far as I knew “bad guys” existed only in Disney movies, where they were defeated at the end. I was shocked and chagrined to learn that the real world had “bad guys” as well. These kids now already know all about the world’s bad guys. Most of the kids want to move out of New Orleans because they already know first-hand that it’s a dangerous city, and hope to move one day to Atlanta, which for these kids has the aura and mystique of the Emerald City. These kids live in a pessimistic era, and they know it. They know all about the oil spill and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Seven and eight-year-olds roll their eyes in a way that makes them seem seventeen and eighteen. It makes me wonder what this prematurely advanced generation will be like once they actually are seventeen and eighteen.


They accused my generation of growing up too fast, of knowing about things at the age of twelve that our parents didn’t know about till they were twenty-five. It seems as though Gen Z is an accelerated version of that. Make no mistake: they’re still unmistakably children, but I don’t know how long they’ll stay that way. This generation is already savvy about technology, music, and life in general – I think they know when they’re being played a little more than generations past have. They were born into a fast-paced, plugged-in world, and they expect fast-paced, plugged-in products. It’s no longer Barney singing, “I love you, you love me, we’re one happy family.” For Gen Z, it’s more like, “I love your new iPhone 4, you love my Nintendo DS, we’re one jaded, distracted family.”

– Mike Wittner