Linda Manziaris, 14, a jewellery entrepreneur from Toronto, gives half of her profit to charity. Ann Makosinski, 16, from Victoria, created a flashlight that is powered by the human hand. Shawn Mendes, 16, from Pickering, Ont., went from posting Vine videos online to international pop stardom. Hannah Alper, 11, an eco-blogger from Toronto, has addressed stadium-sized crowds across North America.
Kids these days.
These exceptional young Canadians are all part of the post-millennial generation. It's a cohort of kids that doesn't have a definitive name yet, but some have dubbed it Generation Z (as in, the generation after the large and influential Generation Y). These are the under-18s, kids growing up in an era of global economic turmoil and climate change. Despite their youth, the digitally sophisticated, socially conscious high achievers emerging from this group are causing some people to wonder: Is this the generation that will solve the world's problems?
"I think our generation is really socially conscious, environmentally friendly and they are really global thinkers," says Linda Manziaris, the 14-year-old social entrepreneur and founder of Body Bijou and this year's Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the Startup Canada Awards.
Linda donates 50 per cent of the profit from her online jewellery business to Girls Helping Girls, which was started by her 16-year-old sister, Susanna. So far, the not-for-profit has funded school building, teacher training and 20 scholarships for girls in South Africa, Kenya and Jamaica.
"[Our generation] sees a problem and they want to fix it, they aren't leaving it for someone else to fix," Linda says.
For the most part, Gen Z is made up of the offspring of Generation X, or the "baby bust" generation, the group born after the baby boomers, says David K. Foot, demographer and author of the seminal book on 20th century demographics, Boom Bust and Echo. This means Gen Z is smaller in number than the robust millennial, or "echo," generation.
"Because they have been in much smaller classes in elementary school, they have already experienced the advantages of being in a smaller group," says Foot. "When they apply to college or university, there's going to be less competition within their group, and they are going to have a higher probability of getting into college or university if they want to."
Gen Z kids are digital natives, and can't remember a world without the Internet, smartphones and social media. They have technological skills that are totally intuitive and surpass those of their parents, says Don Tapscott, chief executive officer of Tapscott Group in Toronto. He says that instead of a generation gap, we now have a "generation lap," where kids are lapping their parents on a digital track.
"This is the first time in history when children are an authority about something really important," he says. "I was an authority about model trains when I was 11. And now you've got this 11 year old at the breakfast table who's an authority on this mobile revolution that's changing commerce, government, publishing, entertainment, every institution in society."
In 2008, Tapscott published Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, based on a $4-million study of the millennials, encompassing 11,000 young people in 10 countries aged 11 through 30. Though he notes that there hasn't yet been a major study on today's under-18s yet, Tapscott says many of the characteristics of this younger group are the similar to the millennials, only intensified. Tapscott favours the term "Generation Mobile" rather than Gen Z, to reflect them being constantly connected, wherever they are.
"My generation, [the boomers], grew up watching 24 hours of TV per week. We were the passive recipients of TV," Tapscott says. "[Gen Y] was the Net Generation, they came home from school and they would not turn on the TV, they would turn on their computer, reading, organizing, communicating. These kids you're writing about, they don't come home and turn anything on, because they are turned on all the time."
A 2012 study by the U.S.-based marketing company JWT found that kids aged 13 through 17 valued their Internet connection more than going to the movies, getting an allowance from their parents, attending a sporting event or having cable TV. But not everyone has seen this ubiquitous connectivity as a positive thing. For example, author Mark Bauerlein, in his The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, argues that cyberculture is turning young people into "know-nothings."
"The advent of digital technology is having an impact and creating a whole bunch of worries," adds historian, economist and demographer Neil Howe. "It creates real developmental difficulties when so much of your stimulus is digital."
But Tapscott disagrees that this new digital era is hurting kids.
"A lot of people say that this is creating an army of narcissists doing selfies and tweeting and so on, that they are Net-addicted, they are glued to the screen, they are losing their social skills, that they don't give a damn. But if you look at the data, it doesn't support any of that," he says.
"It's not the dumbest generation, it's the smartest."
Craig Kielburger, co-founder of youth development charity Free the Children, works with socially conscious young people every day. He says that this generation is tremendously engaged in social activism. (And he should know, he became an activist when he was just 12.)
In the coming months, Free the Children plays host to "We Day" events all over North America and Britain, attended by tens of thousands of youth to kickstart a "year of action" through their year-long "We Act" program, which encourages young people to support the causes that are important to them.
Kielburger says his organization has dubbed Generation Z the "We Generation," to contrast with the "Me Me Me" moniker that was thrust upon the millennials.
"They are still young, but I believe we are seeing a shift from the 'Me' culture to young people who are more aware of their environment and how their choices impact the world around them," he says. "These are young people who are very much looking at how they can do good in the world."
Kielburger says this generation's digital skills are partly responsible for their zeal for activism, because it's given them the ability to interact with the world and other activists like never before.
"This generation is growing up in the shadow of 9/11, growing up with global issues like climate change and poverty dominating the news, at a level where they understand how interconnected we are in this world," he says. "In previous generations, there was a feeling that when you were young, you were a passive bystander, an adult-in waiting, but today because of technology, young people have this sense of self-confidence and a belief they can change the world."
Case in point: Hannah Alper, the 11-year-old Toronto-based eco-warrior and activist. Her popular blog, Call Me Hannah, is a document of her environmental concerns and the people who inspire her, and she has been a We Day speaker at rallies across the continent. Hannah says she was motivated to start her blog at 9 because of her love of animals.
"I realized that animals rely on the environment and that they rely on us to help the environment," Hannah says. "I did some research and found out there were so many problems in the world, littering, pollution, global warming, climate change, and we need to fix it. And I thought a younger voice could help spread the word.
"When you publish a blog, it's everywhere and anyone can see it and get inspired and motivated."
Whether it's to further a cause, start a business or pursue a dream, Gen Z's technological know-how has improved their ability to get their message out. Budding pop star Shawn Mendes first gained an enthusiastic online following when he posted Vines (six-second videos) of himself performing cover songs. The attention he got won him a record deal, and his song "Life of the Party" became a top-10 hit in Canada and the United States. Though he knows that Vine was his ticket to reaching an audience, Shawn says he knows that social media has its pros and cons.
"Yes, you can get a cover of yours across the world in literally minutes and you can share it across the world very quickly, but you also have to be very careful about what you do because if you say one bad thing, it can get across the world in minutes," says Shawn, fresh from an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Gen Z is learning a lot more about the world, more quickly than past generations, Shawn says, because it's become so easy to access information.
"If you're online, you're reading about world issues every single day. But it's intense. If you get too in depth with the crazy things that are on the Internet, you're going to start to freak out, so you just can't think about it too much, basically."
Sanjay Khanna, futurist and visiting scholar in strategic foresight at the University of Toronto's Massey College, has dubbed Generation Z "GenStressed." Though he agrees that this generation's digital skills have many benefits, he also thinks Gen Z's knowledge of the world's problems could outstrip their ability to change things.
"Global economic uncertainty combined with climate change will make it tough for them to believe their quality of life will improve enough via their digital skills alone," Khanna says. "I think it will be psychologically and economically precarious, and I think there will be a rise in mental health issues."
Not everyone will be able to shine in these precarious times, adds Khanna, so older generations will need to have greater sensitivity to Gen Z's emotional and psychological well-being because they are so aware and they do want things to be better.
"GenStressed will need strong leadership and social-support networks at vocational institutes, colleges, universities and in the workplace," he says. "There will be so many who, if we aren't careful, will be left behind."
Despite his optimism about Gen Z, Tapscott says there are issues to worry about. "I worry about the quality of our public discourse, as many of our traditional media institutions fail. And we have a model of pedagogy in the schools that is appropriate for the 15th century, and the idea that the teacher is the source of all knowledge – I think [Gen Z] is questioning that."
Though it's impossible to know what this generation will or not achieve, Tapscott has high hopes for Gen Z's future.
"They are disproportionally affected by this economic crisis, and they are inheriting this world that is pretty horrific," says Tapscott. "But from everything we know about them, they have the smarts, the connectivity, the good values and the will to not only carve a reasonable life for themselves, but also to bring about change in society."
For her part, Hannah is confident that her generation can make a real difference.
"We are a generation that cares, it's true," she says. "There are so many do-gooders, and so many amazing minds in this generation that have already accomplished so much. I think our generation will be the one to change the world."