Youngster.co matches teens with elders to exchange tech know-how and timeless wisdom
Few places have seen more hardship throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns than aged-care facilities. Youngster.co is doing everything it can to wring something positive out of the situation, both for elders and teenagers. The startup pairs youngsters with older people to swap technological know-how and life lessons. When lockdowns forced Yougnster.co to move its operations from in-person interactions to digital only, co-founders and father-son duo Tony and Finn Rothacker saw it as an opportunity to scale the business nationally.
“COVID-19 actually gave us the platform to be virtual only,” Tony Rothacker told VENTURE. “We found that it’s actually scalable that way and much faster than a face-to-face service.”
What began as a small test run of 10 teenagers visiting a regional aged-care facility could prove to be one of the success stories coming out of the COVID-19 era.
It began with open innovation. A regional local health district solicited help in solving the problem of youth suicide in regional Australia.
“One of the big challenges is that young people don’t have a vision for the future, especially in regional Australia,” Tony said. “I think it’s really relevant now with COVID-19, people are really unsure what’s going to happen in the future. Losing a job and being unemployed is one of the big contributing factors.”
Recognising that some seniors lack fundamental tech skills and young people need employment, the Rothackers hit upon a solution.
“It is a natural solution to have the youngsters helping the elders. The youngsters have natural technology inclination or skills, they just grow up with it. Elders at the same time have a huge asset to bring to the table, which is life skills. We thought, ‘Why not pair up those two groups?’ We are very conscious that both vulnerable groups need to be protected. They can benefit from each other.”
It’s an idea very much rooted in the past—elders taking a role in raising young adults—but with a modern technological twist. Even Youngster.co’s structure reflects it; Finn does the coding whilst Tony handles the sales and marketing side.
Communication, empathy, listening. These aren’t necessarily skills that are assessed in school. They come from family and community. It’s something older, experienced people can pass down to younger generations. How to set up video chat on a smartphone for a telehealth visit with a doctor, is something teens can do to return the favor.
On that first visit to an aged-care facility in early 2020, with about 10 teenagers in tow, Tony wasn’t sure what to expect. Would the youngsters be scared to open up? Would the elders?
“The reaction was amazing,” he said. “The engagement between the youngsters and the elders was so positive. The elders were quite emotional, and we were supporting the youngsters to make sure they know what to do in those situations.”
YCombinator invited Youngster.co to apply for funding. They didn’t get approved in the latest round, but they did get a lot of great feedback about and were encouraged to reapply after they’d gained some more traction. Since then, they’ve won a government contract to assist 50 elders. It’s already been expanded to 300, and there are talks for more.
They’ve received support from Guy Kawasaki, chief evangelist for Canva and host of the Remarkable People podcast. Big Red Group co-founder and former “Shark Tank” shark Naomi Simson has provided mentoring and helped convince computer manufacturer Lenovo to enlist 300 staff as Youngster.co volunteers.
Youngster.co onboards 20-30 teenagers at a time and is trying to bring on 100 every month. To continue growing, they’re getting more trainers onboard and working with the Australian Federal Police and Australia Post to process more background checks and make a bigger impact on the communities they serve.
“In five years’ time, if we can be the intergenerational startup of Australia, valued at $1 billion, that would be a dream,” Tony said.
It can start with something as simple as teaching someone how to hook up their modem or setup their WiFi correctly and get consistent internet service.
Much to Learn
During a time of recession and high unemployment, providing scores of particularly vulnerable people with a job and a purpose is a direct benefit. So is showing an elder how to video conference with a doctor or shop online. What’s less tangible but perhaps more meaningful in the long run is the power of connection. During lockdowns, isolation and the mental health issues that come along with it were some of the biggest threats outside the novel coronavirus itself.
“We actively seek youngsters who speak more than one language,” Tony said, citing the case of an 82-year-old who wanted to learn Japanese. “We also actively seek people who have certain interests so we can pair like-minded people together. We ask first, ‘What are the challenges you have?’ and the youngster needs to address them individually. That gives us extra ability to tap into the elders’ needs and be relevant.”
Say an older person is interested in astronomy and wants to learn more. Youngster.co finds a teenager who knows astronomy and pairs them up. Genuine friendships are forged.
“Teenagers have value to give and elders have a depth of life experience share with the youngsters.”
“As working parents we are often missing to spend quality time with our kids and our parents. Our teenagers are left to their devices and social media.
“We believe this technology boost comes at a cost to our family interaction and community values.
“This is where we, the 40-60-year-olds, can play a vital role. We know how to check and order services online, be the catalyst to make the intergeneration change happen and give our families and youngster.co a boost!”
As beneficial as technology is, sometimes there’s no substitute for in-person interaction. That’s a lesson Tony learned from his own 20-year-old son and co-founder.
“My son implemented a time limit on my social media consumption, and it changed my life,” he said.
Who would’ve thought that’s something you’d learn from a teenager?