Soils in the drainage basins of Arctic rivers are a major global reservoir of aged organic carbon. The fate of this old carbon is of growing concern as the effects of climate change become more evident in the Arctic. We report natural abundance 14C data indicating that dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from several Eurasian and North American rivers is predominantly young and largely derived from recently-fixed C in plant litter and upper soil horizons. Concentrations of dissolved lignin phenols, unique organic tracers of terrestrial plant material, and 14C content in DOC were strongly correlated throughout the Arctic Ocean, indicating terrigenous DOC is mostly young and widely distributed in polar surface waters. These young ages of terrigenous DOC in rivers and the ocean indicate little of the old carbon stored in Arctic soils is currently being mobilized in the dissolved component of continental runoff.