The public, private lives of Generation Z

17 Sep, 2020

Dr Rachel O Connor, Student Engagement and Experience Officer at TU Dublin, says new research finds that Generation Z students are comfortable with and expect the most private aspects of life to be a topic of debate.

Active consent is a programme about informed sexual consent and an individual's role and responsibility in one of life’s most intimate acts. Active consent is not only about personal experience; it's about respect, trust and an authentic experience.

In September 2019, TU Dublin included active consent as part of its orientation programme for students. Ten years ago, the possibility of timetabling sessions on such a private topic would have been considered impossible and may have been viewed as interference by the university. However, society and students have changed immeasurably. Generation Z students are comfortable with and expect the most private aspects of life to be a topic of debate. The conversation is mature and constructive and perhaps this is the reason why the take-up and popularity of these sessions buck the current trend in student engagement.

Over 2,000 first-year students participated, with over 82% feeling that the information was relevant and over 85% saying they would recommend the workshop to a friend. The figures confirm that the higher education community is providing a welcoming public space for students to discuss and explore the reality of sexual consent. It also signals the transformation of the university as a place of professional learning and expertise to a community of lived and shared transformative experiences.

While careers are still a core outcome, employability and life goals seamlessly thread the expectations of our graduates. In these communities of shared transformation, is the role of educators increasingly one of a nurturer? Are public institutions becoming a space for personal introspection and if so, how do we best support and meet that expectation? While success has and will remain the desired outcome, what success is- is now up for discussion? Real success is about balance. The balance of ambition and wellbeing; public good and private desire. Perhaps this is the generation that will find that balance?

In the last number of years, the student intake of millennials has started to make way for Generation Z. This is having an impact on the needs of our students and how we do our job in supporting them through their college careers. Generation Z are the children of Generation X. Born from 1995 on, they were on the brink of adolescence when many of their parents were hit hard by economic recession. They grew up through a tough decade of history, both nationally and globally, and this has affected how they see and operate in the world. While good finances are in their top three desires, the emphasis is on security not wealth.

Meaningful relationships are a priority. They have good relationships with their parents and are likely to listen to them (unusual yes!). They are, however, a generation grappling with 24/7 social media, sustainability and many are immersed in anxiety. They have no memory of a world without the internet, Google and social media. This generation had a digital footprint before they took their first breath and their private milestones are celebrated in the public space of social media.


They are surrounded by information and expertise all vying for their attention. They are realists, rather than optimists and yearn for expert stewardship and life curators who can sift, distil and quiet the noise of the reams of knowledge at the fingertips. Increasingly, they are placing that trust in their universities. They look to that community as a safe place to navigate their porous world. They invite us to become guides, as they search for agency in the development of an authentic professional self.

So what’s new? Universities have always inhabited multiple spaces providing personal learning, cultural and political leadership in matters of national importance. Students have always found their voice and often their political awakening while at college. Student politics has historically provided a catalyst for social change or at a minimum offered a barometer of cultural and social norms so it no surprise that active consent would embed itself in the fabric of universities.

However, these outcomes have always been on the periphery of the university life rather than at its core. That is what’s changing. These matters are no longer on the sidelines, but measured as key outcomes of the universities' performance.  Active consent is a marker due to its scale and content.

Further, the official role of universities in the private space of general wellbeing is solidified through the national student survey. Asked how well their university provides support for their overall well-being, only 53% believe they are provided with enough support to make a meaningful difference.

It appears that universities need to do more in this area. This is not the university prescribing a set of values but rather hosting a conversation in the public realm about how individuals negotiate their private world. The learning experience is now the exploration of the whole person as they define their place in this world. University staff are both navigators and nurturers of these journeys and it is our students who will measure how well we have equipped and supported them as they reach their destinations.

Dr Rachel O Connor is Student Engagement and Experience Officer at TU Dublin

This article was originally published by RTÉ Brainstorm.