South Korea bid farewell to its traditional age counting system, bringing the country in line with international standards. The decision, implemented on Wednesday, resulted in a nationwide shift as individuals found themselves officially one or two years younger.
Lee Jung-hee, a Seoul-based housewife, discovered she would be a year younger under the new system, and her elation was evident. “It feels good,” she expressed to AFP, adding, “For people like me, who were supposed to turn 60 next year, it makes you feel like you’re still young.”
South Korea was the last remaining East Asian country to employ a method of age calculation that labeled newborns as one year old at birth, accounting for the time spent in the womb as their first year of life. Unlike the international system that recognizes age based on the actual date of birth, the Korean system advanced everyone’s age at the start of each year, regardless of their birthday. Consequently, a baby born on December 31 would be considered two years old on January 1 in Korean age.
While China, Japan, and even North Korea abandoned this system long ago, South Korea clung to tradition despite its global influence through cultural phenomena like K-pop and kimchi.
The transition to the international age system is expected to reduce confusion. Hong Suk-min, an office worker, described the challenges faced when asked about his age by foreigners. “It’s confusing when a foreigner asks me how old I am as I know they mean international age, so I have to do some calculations,” he said. After a reflective pause, he shared that he is 45 in international age but 47 according to the Korean system.
Although the change in age calculation will have limited practical impact due to various legal and administrative functions already utilizing the date of birth, the South Korean government hopes it will prevent misunderstandings and resolve issues. Minister of Government Legislation, Lee Wan-kyu, explained that discrepancies between daily age and legal age often lead to legal disputes. Lee emphasized the importance of understanding one’s actual age and provided instructions to the media on how to calculate it.
Notably, the alteration does not affect certain areas, including the school year, compulsory military service eligibility, and the legal drinking age, as they follow a separate age system known as “year age.” For now, this system will remain intact. However, Lee indicated that the government might consider revising the use of “year age” depending on the outcome of the current changes.
The concept of age holds significant cultural value in South Korea, impacting social status and dictating appropriate forms of address. Anthropologist Mo Hyun-joo highlighted the significance, stating, “Age really matters” in South Korean society. People commonly address each other using terms like “unni” (older sister) and “oppa” (older brother) instead of names, indicating the importance of age in communication.
As the nation adjusts to the new age system, the hope is that South Korea’s hierarchical age-based culture will gradually become more neutralized, particularly in educational settings. Anthropologist Mo believes that with the increased usage of international age, the culture’s strict adherence to age-based hierarchies may loosen over time.
For now, South Koreans are relishing the opportunity to feel younger under the revised legislation. Yoon Jae-ha, a schoolboy from the city of Busan, expressed his joy, exclaiming, “My age has shrunk!” He playfully added, “I like being younger because then my mum will take care of me longer.”