An unexpected phenomenon has unfolded in South Korea, as millions found themselves a year or two younger following the country’s adoption of the “international age” method of determining age on Wednesday. This move is an attempt by the government to mitigate confusion arising from the existence of three age calculation systems previously used in the country. Under the previous most popular system, known as the “Korean age,” a baby was considered one year old at the moment of birth, symbolizing a life that began in the womb. On the first day of every year, everyone in the country turned a year older, meaning a child born in December would be considered two years old just a month later, according to the “Korean age.”
Counting Age vs. International Age
In addition to the “Korean age,” another method called “counting age” was in use. This system calculated age by subtracting the person’s birth year from the current year, leading to potential variances of months from their “international age.” The persistence of these three systems caused confusion in various aspects of Korean society, ranging from grammar usage to determining starting ages for school, mandatory military service, the legal drinking age, and pension eligibility.
Reducing Socio-economic Costs
The leading Korean internet search engine, Naver, previously offered an online tool to help people calculate their age due to its complexity. “The revision is aimed at reducing unnecessary socio-economic costs because legal and social disputes, as well as confusion, persist due to the different ways of calculating age,” stated lawmaker Yoo Sang-bum, of the ruling People Power Party, in parliament. Following a government-issued statement, a vast majority of South Koreans polled reported readiness to embrace their international age to alleviate confusion. Choi Hyun-ji, who globally would be considered 27, exclaimed her joy of feeling younger with the new system, a sentiment echoed by many others in the country.
Impacts on Social Life
The adoption of the international age system has direct implications for daily life, as well. Han Chae-yeon, a 19-year-old student intending to study in the U.K., expressed relief at not having to explain the Korean age in other countries. “I was worried that I would be banned from drinking even though I’m 20 (under the traditional Korean age system), but now I’m relieved that I still can drink,” she mentioned.
Adjustment and Compliance
While many online voices supported the decision, acknowledging the previous system’s confusion, there were also some who felt discomfort at the idea of their country conforming to an international standard. The change is also expected to affect everyday conversations since Korean uses different words and titles to denote deference based on age or rank. Notwithstanding these changes, certain legal determinants will continue to rely on the “counting age.” For instance, laws governing minors, such as the legal age for alcohol and tobacco consumption, will remain determined by “counting age.” Government officials emphasized this by visiting local bars and convenience stores to stress that the legal age for alcohol and tobacco sales remains 19, which corresponds to anyone born in 2004 or before.
Historical Aspect of Age Calculation
The traditional Korean age calculation system’s origins remain a topic of debate. Some theories suggest that it includes the nine months spent in the womb, which are counted and rounded up, while others propose links to an ancient Asian numerical system that didn’t include zero. Moreover, it’s believed that ancient Koreans, lacking regular calendars, utilized the 60-year Chinese calendar cycle. Initially, Koreans would add a year on the first day of the lunar calendar but switched to January 1 when they started observing Western calendars. Before the current change, an individual in South Korea could potentially be recognized as three different ages based on the system used.
The International Change
This recent shift towards the international age-counting method is part of the broader promises made by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May 2022. The change aims to simplify the process of age calculation and minimize discrepancies caused by the earlier systems.
Responses to the Change
The change was welcomed by many South Koreans, as they saw their ages reduced by a year or two. However, the decision was not without its detractors. While some people celebrated their newfound youth, others questioned how everyday customs and practices might change, especially in classrooms where age or rank often determines the language used. For those planning to travel or work abroad, like 19-year-old student Han Chae-yeon, the adoption of the international age system simplifies interactions by aligning their age with the standard used globally. “I’m going to study abroad in the U.K., so I think it’s less confusing that I don’t need to explain about Korean age and just can say my international age in other countries, as we adopted the international age system,” she told Reuters.
Remnants of Old Age System
Even as the country embraces the international age-counting method, traces of the previous age calculation systems will linger in certain sectors. The ‘counting age’ system will continue to influence the legal age for consumption of alcohol and tobacco, reinforcing that anyone born in 2004 or before is legally considered 19 years old.
This shift marks a significant step for South Korea, unifying the age calculation method with most of the world. As a result, the move could foster clearer communication and smoother socio-cultural interactions, both within the country and with international communities. Nevertheless, as the country navigates through the nuances of the new system, an interesting mix of the old and new is expected to persist. For more information about South Korea’s culture and lifestyle, visit VisitKorea.