Most people don't know that Louis Braille developed his reading system for the blind by the time he was 16 years old, or that Joan of Arc led France to military victory when she was 17. Blaise Pascal invented the calculator at 19. Albert Einstein published his theory of special relativity at 26. Young people having big ideas is a very old tradition.
Yet you can't run for president of the United States, or even vice president, until you're 35. (Remember: It's popularly believed that Jesus was crucified at 33.) You have to be at least 30 to be a U.S. senator, and at least 25 to be a representative (for comparison, King Tut's reign lasted from when he was about nine to his death at around 19).
More than one-third of Americans are younger than 30, while zero—zero—federal lawmakers are. The average age of our sitting Congress is 58.5, a glaring demonstration of how grossly underrepresented our young people are in halls of power—a travesty to anyone who has spent any time surveying the landscape of our brightest citizens in their teens and twenties.
You might think that the most difficult task while culling the honorees for Pacific Standard's annual 30 under 30 list is to sleuth out young powerhouse intellectuals who are poised to shape society's coming ideas. You'd be wrong. It is, rather, to narrow down the massive field of qualified candidates, and the avalanche of knockout nominations, we receive each year.
There are simply so many young people whose caliber of thought and devotion to action outstrip by far the vast majority of the older population. Their mental acuity, stamina, and optimism more than make up for their lack of experience.
In fact, their inexperience is often crucial to what they end up getting done: More than a few of this year's crop of phenomenal thinkers openly attribute their intrepidness to their naiveté. They credit the folly of youth with having taken on what they did. Some even say, in retrospect, that if they'd known then what they know now, they wouldn't have attempted what they did.
Many of the young people we interviewed told us that having an underrepresented identity is what motivates them to do what they do. Some of the people on our list, like the Mexican White House staffer who mentors young Latinas, are deliberately making themselves visible to the next generation. As Marian Wright Edelman, longtime champion for young people, has said, "You can't be what you can't see."
There are also people on our list whose brains literally work differently—whether because of autism, or for other reasons. (Alan Turing, thought by some to have been on the spectrum, was 27 when he built the computing machine that broke Nazi codes—suggesting that neurodiversity can be crucial to solving the world's scariest problems.)
On a personal note, I'll add that every year when I tell people I'm working on this project, some ask, "Isn't that depressing?" They mean, I think, that it must be disheartening to focus on people who have accomplished so much so young, while we common older folk (I am, let's say, past 30) live our commoner, older lives.
"Depressing?" I reply. "No. The opposite."
It's inspiring. It gives me faith for the future. And it's an honor to shine this spotlight. We need to be celebrating young superstars in realms besides entertainment so that even younger people can aspire even higher.
Rather than be intimidated by the 30 up-and-comers on Pacific Standard's 2017 list, we should take their existence as a needed sign that everything might, after all, turn out OK.
- Dafne Almazán, 15, Child Psychology
- Lily S. Axelrod, 29, Immigration Law
- Jacob Barnett, 18, Physics
- Tamma Carleton, 29, Environmental Economics
- Sean Chen, 26, Urban Planning
- Yvonne Dean-Bailey, 21, State Politics
- Cristina Flores, 26, Politics
- Rebecca Garcia, 26, Computer Literacy
- Yaa Gyasi, 27, Literature
- Jewell Jones, 22, State Politics
- Cody Karutz, 29, Film & Virtual Reality
- Michael Li, 18, Neuroscience
- Bernadette Lim, 22, Medicine & Gender-Rights Activism
- Sara Minkara, 27, Public Policy & Activism
- Daquan Oliver, 25, Entrepreneurship & Activism
- Tamara Patton, 28, Nuclear Disarmament
- Alexander Peysakhovich, 29, Behavioral Economics
- Sam Pressler, 24, Psychology & Performing Arts
- Jesse Reising, 27, Law & Education
- Victoria M. Rodríguez-Roldán, 28, Transgender Activism
- Aviva Rosman, 29, Voter Mobilization
- Annie Ryu, 26, Social Entrepreneurship
- Hannah Safford, 25, Environmental Policy
- Erin Schrode, 26, Politics & Environmentalism
- Boyan Slat, 22, Environmental Science
- Peng Shi, 29, Data Science
- June Eric-Udorie, 18, Gender Activism
- Thomas Tasche, 26, International Policy & Political Economics
- Alexis Toliver, 23, Neuroscience & Public Policy
- Anthony Lee Zhang, 24, Economics
Lead Illustration: Photos courtesy Princeton Alumni Weekly & Cheryl Barnhart. (Illustration: Taylor Le/Pacific Standard)