Doing good as a teenager used to mean mowing granny’s lawn or teaching English badly in a randomly selected developing country. Then came the me-me millennials whose circuit-board brains helped propel them to overnight riches. Next up: a new generation that combines good intentions, Facebook entrepreneurialism and a desire to save humanity and/or the planet.
We’ll call them the precocious noble types and appoint Boyan Slat as their de facto good-doer-in-chief. The Dutch kid who’s 19 and needs a haircut, has devised what he believes is a way to rid the oceans of life-choking plastic.
The aerospace engineering student at the Delft University of Technology says his system of booms and sifters would use currents to strain plastic particles, which could be sold on for a profit. Experts have questioned its feasibility, but what’s most striking is Slat’s passionate pursuit of such a selfless goal. In a recent presentation at a very grown-up conference, he made the late Steve Jobs look like an average public speaker.
And he’s not alone. In January, Jack Andraka, who’s 15, won £50,000 of scholarship funds from Intel after he invented a test to detect cancer. The American schoolboy had been turned away by 197 scientists he solicited for help with a cheap test for the early signs of pancreatic cancer, which is among the hardest to treat. When one professor gave him a shot, the device was born and shown to work. It may even go into production before Jack reaches adulthood.
Across America in California, Angela Zhang, 17, went one better last year and proposed her own cure for cancer. The chemistry nut devised a way to attach medication to nanoparticles that would fix to cancer cells. Infrared light would then release the medicine, allowing it to kill the cancer but not healthy cells. She, too, won a big prize after the method worked on mice (it’s a long way from being used on patients). “This is a Cinderella moment for a science nerd like me,” she told reporters.
If that’s not enough to make you feel inadequate whatever your age, take a look at Parker Liautaud. The polar adventurer and environmental campaigner has shared panels with Bob Geldof and Kofi Annan and delivered a million-strong petition to David Cameron despite being just old enough to vote.
One hopes teens like these, who might not be representative of those you know, also take the time to get wasted and make a mess.
In the meantime, their defiance of the stereotypical adolescent layabout is arguably their greatest achievement.