The emergence of Generation O youngsters - O for optimistic and opportunistic - is revealed in research that aims to cast light on some of the most misunderstood creatures of the late 20th century: children.
The study, by the advertising agency McCann-Erickson, reveals that, as family units fracture and state institutions decline, children are growing up younger. Enfranchised by information technology, they are more independent and sophisticated than their predecessors and more confident about what they can achieve.
Access to information, cultural conditioning through the media and the received wisdom of the playground are the driving forces behind the new generation. As their busy (and increasingly single) - parents spend less time with them, so television, the Internet, magazines and peers are becoming more significant influences.
Researchers estimate that about 60 per cent of children have televisions in their bedrooms, while 43 per cent have access to a computer in the home. The idea of a family sitting down to eat together, the research suggests, is redundant. "At best, Sunday lunch now means sitting down with food on a tray to watch the omnibus edition of EastEnders," says Katherine Hannah, a senior planner at the agency.
"There is a fundamentally different consumer out there," says Simon Aboud of Magic Hat, a division of McCann-Erickson devoted to understanding teenagers. "They are smart and sassy, but not at all cynical. They are having to be more grown-up. The idea of the nuclear family does not exist, and higher education is like getting a job, as you have to pay your way now. But with the explosion of access to information, they have finally got their hands on the means of production."
At six years of age, a girl still dreams of being a princess, but by eight she wants to sing and dance like Billie. At 11, she would die for eye contact with Leonardo DiCaprio or, if he's not handy, then Richard Branson will do.
"They genuinely believe they can do whatever they want if they work hard enough at it," says Mr Aboud.
Although the changes are affecting children of all ages, some of the most marked differences are being seen among those aged 10, 11 and 12, the pre-adolescent age group referred to as "tweens". They represent a generation of girls and boys who are less concerned with toys and teddy bears than the fashion and style aspirations of older siblings or role models.
"No 11-year-old wants to be 11," says Mr Aboud. "They want to be older, just like anyone who is 30 wants to be younger. The golden age is somewhere between 20 and 25."
The emergence of tweens has already been noted with alarm in the United States, where some commentators have talked about the death of childhood as 10-year-old girls are shopping for cosmetics, miniskirts and designer sunglasses. Kay Hymowitz, author of a book on tweens to be published next year, says: "It's a disturbing trend. Parental absence, the market and the peer group form a vicious circle that works to distort the development of youngsters."
McCann's research reveals similar brand sophistication among the 10- 12 age-group in Britain. While children as young as seven are aware of Nike and Adidas, tweens understand and act on the credibility ratings of the sub-brands - that a pair of Nike Air Max is far more leading-edge than the old-school, low-tech Cortez. They insist on Gap or Top Shop or CK originals rather than Marks & Spencer imitations. With parents less able to police their viewing, they watch horror movies such as Scream and other post-watershed fare, including South Park.
The girls swoon over Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic was a massive hit among this age group). The boys - like boys of every age - admire footballers, but in the group research they will spell out very specific reasons for whom they rate: the Italian international striker Alessandro Del Piero for his skill, the Arsenal captain Tony Adams for his reliability and leadership.
"They have a meritocratic attitude about whom they admire," says Ms Hannah. "That's why sportsmen and women are rated highly. A lot of their heroes are self-made. Even the Spice Girls are like that - what they like about the Spice Girls is that they are all pretty ordinary girls, not that beautiful, but they have a laugh, make money and have been a huge success, and now they manage themselves.
"Richard Branson is also mentioned by 10 and 11-year-olds because he generally succeeds in getting what he wants."
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO YESTERDAY'S YOUTH?
The Baby Boomer
The teenagers of the Sixties and Seventies who take the credit for everything, from teenage rebellion, the sexual revolution to ending the Vietnam War. They are less keen to take credit for bad hair cuts and progressive rock.
Rising unemployment in the late Seventies and early Eighties created a generation of disaffected youths. However most of The Clash went to public school and a lot of the glue-sniffing took place in the nice middle- class suburbs.
Twentysomethings during the early Nineties recession seemed like the first post-war generation unlikely to do better than their parents. They had McJobs rather than careers, partly because they looked like Kurt Cobain.
So boring that they are the people best known as the generation after Generation X. This gang of would-be over-achievers took soft drugs, worked very hard to get into university and practised serial monogamy.
The people who took every drug that they could find and then found themselves in an Irvine Welsh short story. Usually characterised by dilated pupils, baggy clothes and the ability to dance for 12 hours straight.
are they now?
The Baby Boomer
Most famously, The White House and 10 Downing Street. Others can be found attending Relate, mid-life crisis counsellors, plastic surgery clinics and Harley Street doctors selling Viagra.
Many seem to be columnists on national newspapers or appear on BBC2's Late Review. Others are to be found shopping in Waitrose. They are marketing directors with their own Renault Espaces.
Working in Waitrose. Living with their parents. Trying to stop doing Teaching-English-as-a-Foreign Language (that is, TEFL) jobs and get back to Britain. Working in public relations.
Millbank. Demos. Parliamentary lobbying companies. Smug bars in Notting Hill and Islington - although they actually live in either Ladbroke Grove or Dalston.
The Chemical Generation
Those not terminally depressed by low seratonin - caused by too much Ecstasy - are buying Versace and Donna Karan and going to expensive clubs in between buying Red magazine and going to garden centres.