Enter Gen Z: a panel discussion with 5 Trinitarians

By Emily McAuliffe

We put the heavy questions to five Trinity Gen Z-ers to get to know the next generation of leaders rising through the ranks and to find out what they care about.

L–R: Kien-Ling Liem, Zoe Gillies, Serena Barton, Shehelah Ousman, Daisy Wu

Generation Z – those born in the late 1990s and early 2000s – are globally connected digital natives who have little to no memory of a world without smartphones and social media. They’re diverse and highly educated, and many are passionate about shaking up existing power structures to create a more equitable world. By 2025, it’s estimated they will make up almost 30 per cent of the workforce and might have six or more careers in their lifetime. We chat to five Trinity students and alumni to get their thoughts on the big issues the world is currently facing. 

Meet our panel

Kien-Ling Liem

Kien-Ling (TCFS 2021) is studying Foundation Studies remotely from Penang, Malaysia. She is the editor of the Trinity Connection student newsletter and art director of online youth zine Getting it Strait, which focuses on activism, creative expression and amplifying marginalised voices. She is also a member of Trinity’s movie and writing clubs and helps organise online events as part of the Trinity Gateway team.

Zoe Gillies

Zoe (TC 2019) grew up in Melbourne and is studying a Bachelor of Commerce. At Trinity, she is involved in the newly formed Respect Committee, as well as the music and ER White societies. In 2019, she was a member of the College rowing team and film society.

Serena Barton

Serena (TC 2020) is a Yadighana, Wuthathi and Gurindji person with connections to Waiben in Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait Islands) and grew up in Darwin. She is studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in politics, international relations and philosophy. She is a business development intern at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and is a member of Trinity’s Kumergaii Yulendji First Nations student committee.

Shehelah Ousman

Shehelah (TC 2020) was born in Sri Lanka and migrated to Australia in 2003. In 2021, she was elected Victoria’s Youth Premier. Shehelah is a member of Trinity’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance and Respect Committee, and is a diversity and inclusion portfolio leader at the Skyline Education Foundation Australia. She is studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in gender studies.

Xiaohan (Daisy) Wu

Daisy (TCFS 2015) grew up in Shanghai, China. After completing Foundation Studies at Trinity, she studied a Bachelor of Design, majoring in construction, and is completing a Master of Construction Management. Daisy is a cadet quantity surveyor and is the former president of the Construction Students Association. She is the former international student ambassador of the University of Melbourne Student Union International and is the podcast lead at the Chartered Institute of Building’s ‘Tomorrow’s Leaders Victoria’.


To kick things off, in what way do you think Gen Z is different from previous generations?

KIEN-LING: I think the main difference is our familiarity and integration with social media and new technology. We're also not scared of speaking up, consequences or authority, and know that we have each other’s backs.

ZOE: There are a lot of issues that have been around for ever – like gender inequality and environmental damage, but now we're not afraid to talk about them. The world has problems and we understand that if you ignore them, you're never going to fix them.

SHEHELAH: I agree. There’s an unwillingness to stay silent on issues that matter most to us and an unwillingness to abide by rules set out by different agencies and structures that prevent us from expressing how we feel.

SERENA: My family is Indigenous, so an example for me would be looking at how my generation is approaching reconciliation. I know my views tend to be more radical than older generations in my family. They're still of the mindset that we can form good relationships as we are, but I don't think that's feasible, and it hasn't been for a long time.

SHEHELAH: I think there are a lot of stereotypes placed upon us because other generations haven't been able to express themselves the way we do, or have been told that it's not good to express your views so vocally. Change is already taking place, and if that makes others uncomfortable, people need to consider whether it’s because the power structures that work in their favour are shifting to enable equality.


Do you think workplace inequality exists when it comes to career opportunities?

SHEHELAH: It's so difficult to see whether minority groups are being denied job opportunities based on some sort of identity box that they may or may not fit into, though I know it exists. I know how many job applications or internships I got rejected from because of my name alone on my resume, when my best friend might've gotten it. I know how many people look shocked when I walk into a room to deliver an address because they’ve formed an idea of what I should look like based on my name. There are many barriers and I think it gets worse and worse as you become more marginalised.

DAISY: The construction industry is continuously plagued by a gender equality gap, but I haven’t been in the industry long enough to be able to really put into perspective why it's hard for women to advance to, say, the middle or top echelons. Having said that, I also think there’s a stereotypical perception of what an exemplary career looks like within the construction industry – it’s not necessarily just about building sites and high vis. Anyone can potentially carve out a unique career and it depends on the individual’s view of what constitutes a successful career.


What are the pros and cons of social media?

KIEN-LING: I think because we were born into this technology, it's integrated with our lives. Now your life is basically the screen that you're looking at, and you're on this screen 24/7. It can be hard to strip away from technology and get in touch with the ‘real world’.

TikTok takes up a lot of my screen time and some things I see concern me. For example, I'll see a video about an eating disorder, but instead of talking about how to address it, it talks about ways to further the disorder. This app has children on it and it's so dangerous for them to see that kind of thing. I’m also concerned about false information, which is easily spread on social media.

Social media can also entrap you in a certain pipeline or mindset. Algorithms on apps like Instagram and YouTube are designed to get more views and make money from those views, so they show you what you want to see. And when you keep seeing the same things over and over again, it can easily trap you in a right or left-wing pipeline. You just keep clicking on videos and posts that perpetuate that narrative, and can end up living in a dangerous bubble where that’s all you know. Social media is an ally, but it's also our enemy.

SHEHELAH: Yes, there are merits to social media, but there are those massive downfalls that are particularly scary. I always think about how impressionable I was when I first logged onto social media and how impressionable kids are. It’s concerning how quickly we can trust a post by someone we have some sort of faith in, even if it’s based on misinformation.

DAISY: In turbulent times, like now, people can be quite stressed and their cognitive ability can be fragile or clouded in a way that can be easily manipulated. This makes it easy for propaganda to seep into people’s minds as they keep feeding themselves this content.

SERENA: Consider the positives, I think social media is a good way for younger people to engage with politics on a holistic level. Even if people can sometimes get stuck in echo chambers, I would argue that a lot of political systems that we have right now aren't designed for younger people and they don't shape or motivate anyone's political values any more. Well, at least not for the younger generation. Social media is a good way for people to become aware of issues that maybe not just affect them, but the people around them, and these could be things that they may have not necessarily thought about before. For example, I remember a lot of people's narratives at College shifted when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening.

ZOE: The ability to instantly connect with people and share information is so amazing. To use the Black Lives Matter movement as an example, there were quite a few petitions that spread really easily. Before social media, it was a lot harder to get behind a movement in the same way.

People against brick wall holding social media symbols


What social issues do you think about the most?

ZOE: I think about equality across all underprivileged groups. I’m motivated to create equality.

SHEHELAH: Ditto. Definitely addressing the marginalisation of different individuals and working towards removing the structures and barriers that enable that, but also climate change as a compounding factor and the existential threat we're all facing. It's hard to disentangle these issues because they feel so interconnected and feed into one another. COVID misinformation is another big social issue I care about.

KIEN-LING: Feminism, but the intersectional kind, which addresses the cumulative effect of different forms of discrimination, including class, sexuality, education, age and race. And yes, climate change as well, because I was born into it.


When it comes to gender, Gen Z is normalising the specification of preferred pronouns as a form of self-identity. What do you think is driving this?

KIEN-LING: I think specifying pronouns – for example, she/her, he/him, they/them – helps transgender and non-binary individuals feel more included, because I feel humanity has progressed and developed to a point where gender expression is not as simple as looking at someone and thinking they’re a man or a woman. We can now interpret gender in so many ways because gender is a social construct – it's something we made up. It's about making people feel comfortable with what they feel on the inside.

SHEHELAH: I totally agree. It's also an amazing way of ensuring that we're affirming other people's gender identities and not denying them their humanity and existence. So many people in my life, including people at College, are closeted and don't feel safe using their own pronouns, but I think this big push to be more open about which pronouns we're using and normalising it as a concept is so people don't feel so outed or strange when they share their preferred pronouns.

Using people's correct pronouns is actually a form of suicide prevention. It's a form of affirmation. It's so underrated and misunderstood by so many people older than me, and I've had some challenging conversations trying to get people of my parents’ generation to wrap their heads around it. I'm hoping that changes once people realise that it's not about us rebelling.


Do you think there's more acceptance of non-traditional family models within Gen Z?

ZOE: I think we still live in a very hetero-normal world that sees the nuclear family as ‘correct’, but it's changing and non-traditional family models are becoming a lot more accepted. People are recognising that what you want to do is what you should do. It shouldn't be dictated by the world around you and what others believe is ‘right’.


Do you think racism is an issue in Australia?

SERENA: Australia is foundationally racist, there's no way to escape that. And I think the way that racism has worked in Australia has been persuasive and underlies a lot of structures. I feel a lot of the time, racism isn't even seen at the forefront of many issues because we hide behind the idea that Australia is diverse because we have a lot of migrants and cultures from all over the world. We do, but what do we actually do for these people? It's hard because you can't really see how a lot of power structures work with racism unless you actively look for them.

I think Indigenous people here are getting louder – actually, not louder – I think they’re being heard more, so things are changing to an extent, but that extent is still just having basic human rights and maybe being treated as a person.

ZOE: As a white Australian, I think we have failed in so many aspects and it's heartbreaking to think back, even to my primary school education, when we were taught about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Australian history, and it was still such a white colonial narrative. If that's what my generation was taught, I think back to what would have been taught in my parents’ generation and how far back that prejudice goes. It's hard to change some of those mindsets when you've been taught something your whole life. The only way we can fix things is by listening to and acting on behalf of all the people of colour in our community.

KIEN-LING: I haven't lived in Australia for a very long time, but I notice it in Malaysia, where a lot of white people discriminate against Chinese Malaysians. That was when I realised racism was so normalised. I see the violence against Asians on the news in Australia and in Melbourne and feel like it's not talked about. I would expect it more to happen in smaller towns – when I went to a smaller town in Australia it happened to me – and I’m saddened to see that it happens in the cities too.

DAISY: For as long as I've been in Australia, I've never felt like an outlier or an outcast, even though during the job-hunting process, I came across certain hurdles or criteria in terms of visa status and citizenship. I also think that how we see ourselves can condition how we perceive certain situations and can perhaps speculate on the views of others as being ‘racist’ when they are well-meaning people.


Do you think Australia has a problem with sexual harassment?

ZOE: Definitely, I think it's a massive issue. Not just in Australia, but all over the world. Just looking at the fact that the #metoo movement never really took off here is testament to the fact that our defamation laws are so strong that it's hard to speak out against your abuser. But it shouldn't fall on women or men – the victims – to speak out. There’s a problem with how we educate people and we need to be educating from a young age, not just about what consent is, but also how to intervene in situations, and about what respectful relationships are.

Everyone knows what consent is, but it doesn't mean it's always respected. People are still being sexually assaulted. Also, the definition of sexual assault is so broad that some people don't realise that what has happened to them can be classified as such, which is heartbreaking. And more so, a lot of people don't realise that their actions constitute sexual assault.

SHEHELAH: It’s everywhere. It’s in educational institutions, it’s in workplaces – it’s an Australia-wide thing. It requires a lot of bravery to address the issue and there needs to be both an individual and structural approach. In many cases, I think there's a lack of accountability and willingness to listen or willingness to acknowledge that there's a problem. That needs to start immediately with everyone, then structurally we need prevention strategies, and need to make sure we’re connected to the right kind of support services. We need to ensure we have procedures and reporting systems that work and advocate for victims and survivors.


Do you worry about climate change?

SERENA: I worry about it all the time. The Pacific Islands going under is particularly concerning. I’m Maori, so it hits close to home. And then the general degradation of the earth – it’s hard as an Indigenous person to watch all the things around you die, and it's dishonouring to see how our governments respond to that, for instance not signing up to reduce our carbon emissions or not caring about how we impact the environment.

KIEN-LING: One of my biggest concerns is that we as individuals can't do much. Even if we all band together, the impact wouldn't be as great as if corporations started taking care of their carbon emissions. It’s hard to change capitalistic thinking and to live sustainably because everybody wants money. Living sustainably hasn't been advocated as a way to earn money yet, so there's no incentive for companies to go in that direction.

SHEHELAH: Sri Lanka is my birth country and I can already see the impacts that climate change is having on our ecosystems and economy. Even though Sri Lanka has low carbon emissions compared to Australia and America and places like that, we're the ones who have to pay the unfair price. We've known about these issues for decades and people haven't done anything about it properly. I also hate that the onus has fallen onto the individual rather than the conglomerates that contribute and the governments that fail to care for their people, especially their most vulnerable.

Cardboard sign saying there's no planet B


Do you think there is stigma around mental health?

SERENA: Yes, I still think there is stigma around mental health. We still have a way to go in understanding mental health properly to appropriately respond to these perceived health ‘issues’ and genuinely provide help for people that experience them.

KIEN-LING: Yes, I think there is, especially in Asian cultures, though there’s less of a stigma among Gen Z.

ZOE: I think Gen Z has a different perspective on mental health, and the stigma associated with mental health challenges is lessening within our generation. I wish older generations would have a better understanding of mental health and the seriousness of these issues, which should be treated in the same way as physical health issues.


How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has affected your generation the most?

SERENA: I feel like a lot of people my age are feeling like they're missing out on some of the best years of their life, which is definitely how I felt last year. A lot of the expectations around these formative years of your life don’t involve being confined to your dorm room. I feel privileged that my social life wasn’t completely taken away at College – even on campus during lockdowns we still got to see people every day and got involved in COVID-safe activities.

ZOE: I think a lot of Trinity students were looking forward to experiencing things in Melbourne – living in the city, seeing live music and just exploring and learning through new experiences. It’s a bit disappointing to then be confined to one area. But then I think everyone has been really fortunate in that they've still been able to interact with others and create social connections at College.

SHEHELAH: I think the pandemic impacted our generation economically, at least those of us who aren't able to depend on our parents or generational wealth. I've had to build my own reserves, and I know so many people like that. Many of us don't live with our families, so we were completely cut off from our connection to our culture and familial bonds. Looking at the positives, it created an opportunity for us to understand each other a bit better. I didn't know anyone when I came to Trinity, so I was isolated in one sense, but I also noticed how the community came together to support each other. I think that’s a beautiful testament to Gen Z and how we often wrap one another up if we can see the other struggling.

DAISY: Having just joined the workforce before we got locked down, it was hard not having those tactile experiences in the office – it’s like a lot of things are missing in the background that help you feel connected. It’s also highlighted how unprepared some of us are in terms of figuring out our life priorities. The hustle, the grind, the overwhelm – I doubt if the majority of us have invested enough time to figure out if that’s what we want for our lives.

KIEN-LING: I’ve had to do my entire Foundation Studies course online and feel like I missed out on all the things that I could've done at Trinity. In a strange way, though, I feel that because we're not seeing each other in real life – I’ve never met my Trinity friends in person because we're all in different countries – it’s forced us to connect with more people because we have to reach out if we want to interact. It’s like we're less connected and more connected at the same time.


When you consider your generation as a whole, what are you most excited for in the future?

DAISY: Just embracing the unknown, which is going to materialise as the only source of certainty.

SERENA: I'm excited to see how people will respond to and take action when it comes to a lot of the things that we've been discussing.

ZOE: I think change. And for me, continuing to learn from those around me and trying to enact those voices. I’m also excited about dismantling a lot of socially constructed views about what it means to be a man or a woman, or a person of colour from a different community, and breaking down a lot of those boundaries.

KIEN-LING: I want to see change too, especially in terms of how people view women, and people of colour. I feel like many things are so integrated into society that it's hard to unlearn them, but what I can see so far is that we are taking the steps to do that and I am excited to see it all come together in the next few decades or so.

SHEHELAH: I'll echo what the others have said: change. I'm excited to see what we decide as a collective is a good future, because we talk about it and envision it a lot and we try to band together to create it, but I'm curious to see if that comes to fruition. I hope the change isn't incremental. Hopefully it's massive. And I’m looking forward to it.

This article first appeared in issue #90 of Trinity Today.




10 Feb 2022
Category: People