South Koreans Just Got Younger, Thanks to a New Law

The country previously had three distinct systems for determining age, often leading to confusion

Lee Wan-kyu, South Korea's minister of government legislation
Lee Wan-kyu, South Korea's minister of government legislation, holds a whiteboard showing his Korean age alongside his international age. Jung Yeon-Je / AFP via Getty Images

Lawmakers have made South Koreans slightly younger—on paper, that is. On Wednesday, the country officially adopted the “international age” system, which dictates that babies are born at 0 years old and gain a year every birthday.

In South Korea, “How old are you?” has long been a complicated question. The country has three methods for determining age: In addition to international age—the system most countries use—South Koreans have also used the systems known as “Korean age” and “year age.”

In the Korean age system, babies are born as 1-year-olds, and a year is added every New Year’s Day. For example, “a baby born on December 31 would be considered 2 years old the next day,” write NPR’s Anthony Kuhn and Mary Yang. Meanwhile, the year age system dictates that babies are born at 0 years old and gain a year every January 1.

“We expect legal disputes, complaints and social confusion that have been caused over how to calculate ages will be greatly reduced,” Lee Wan-kyu, the minister of government legislation, told reporters this week, per the Guardian’s Justin McCurry.

Historians don’t know much about the origins of South Korea’s traditional age-counting systems. Some theories suggest that the methods take into account time spent in the womb or are connected to “an ancient Asian numerical system that did not have the concept of zero,” according to the Guardian.

Since 1962, South Korea has used the international age system in most—but not all—legal and official contexts. In a poll conducted by the Ministry of Government Legislation last year, more than 80 percent of South Koreans supported standardizing the system, and 86 percent said they would use their birth date age in their daily lives, reports NPR.

Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s president, incorporated the shift away from Korean age into his recent campaign, saying that standardizing the age system would reduce confusion both at home and abroad, reports the New York Times’ Jin Yu Young.

Still, even under the new law, age will still be determined by year, regardless of month, in certain cases, according to CNN’s Jessie Yeung and Yoonjung Seo. Those cases include sales of age-restricted products like alcohol or tobacco, as well as enrollment in elementary school and in the the country’s mandatory military service.

“I love it, because now I'm two years younger. My birthday is in December, so I always felt like this Korean age system is making me socially older than what I actually am,” South Korea resident Hyun Jeong Byun tells BBC News’ Kelly Ng and Yuna Ku. “Now that Korea is following the global standard, I no longer have to explain my ‘Korean age’ when I go abroad.”

South Korea has a hierarchical culture that’s closely tied to age, and some South Koreans are uncomfortable with deviations from this system, Yoon In-jin, a sociologist at Korea University, tells the Times. For example, he says, “people in Korea don’t like having a younger person be their superior at work.”

While he hopes the new system will weaken these cultural forces, he doubts that significant shifts are imminent. “From a sociology perspective, customs are so deeply rooted in a society that change won’t happen overnight,” he says.

Others are more optimistic about the new legislation’s ability to catalyze cultural changes. Jeongsuk Woo, a 28-year-old content creator in South Korea, tells BBC News that he hopes the unification will steer the culture away from a “subconscious layer of ageism in people’s behavior.”

Many South Koreans are happy to be younger under the new system. “I was about to turn 30 next year [under the Korean age system], but now I have some more time earned and I love it,” Choi Hyun-ji, a 27-year-old office worker in Seoul, tells the Guardian. “It’s just great to feel like you’re getting younger.”

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