Why are South Koreans suddenly younger? New age system explained

South Koreans officially became a year or two younger on Wednesday as new laws requiring the international method of age counting took effect.

South Koreans woke up a year or two younger after the government changed the East Asian nation’s traditional age-counting system.

Here is what you need to know:

Why are South Koreans younger?

A law passed in December that scrapped the “Korean” method of counting someone’s age came into effect on Wednesday.

Under the “Korean age” system, babies are considered to be one year old on the day they are born, and every January 1, a year is added to people’s ages – regardless of their actual birthdate. For example, a baby born on New Year’s Eve becomes two years old the next day.

There is a second counting method – a mix of the international and Korean age systems – in which a baby is born at zero years, and one year is added every January 1.

So if a woman was born in August 2003, she would be 19 years old under the international system, 20 using the mixed method and 21 under the Korean system.

Is this a radical change?

Under the new law, the country will use the international system that calculates age according to a person’s actual date of birth, meaning everyone will officially become a year or two younger.

But in reality, the change will have limited impact.

Many legal and administrative functions – including ages listed on passports, the age at which one can be prosecuted as a juvenile, and those to qualify for retirement benefits and healthcare services – already use actual dates of birth rather than the Korean system.

Other key areas such as school year eligibility, compulsory military service, and legal drinking and smoking are based on the mixed counting method  and will remain in place for now, Minister of Government Legislation Lee Wan-kyu told a news briefing on Monday.

So why make the change?

The move might ease confusion in society, for example, over the issue of older Koreans who may believe they are eligible for pensions and free travel benefits before they are legally entitled.

“It’s tremendously confusing for many people; some people think of how old they are in terms of the Western way of counting, others do according to the Korean way of counting, and there is in fact more than one way of doing it the Korean way so to speak,” Se-Woong Koo, a South Korean journalist, told Al Jazeera.

“Some people think your age increases with the Lunar New Year, not with the Solar New Year. Some people wonder if their birthday has anything to do with it.”

In this picture taken in Seoul on June 21, 2023, Yoon Jae-ha (L), poses with a whiteboard showing his international age, 8, and Korean age, 9, next to his father, Yoon Dong-gun, who works in trade, and whose international age is 43 and Korean age 44
Yoon Jae-ha, left, shows his international age of eight and Korean age of nine next to his father, Yoon Dong-gun, whose international age is 43 and Korean age is 44 [AFP]

Is this society changing?

According to analysts, the impact might become more evident in how South Koreans think about their relationships.

“In South Korea, it’s very common for someone to assert superiority in a social hierarchy according to their age. The older you are, the more respected you are,” Koo said.

“When you ask people their age, the answer Koreans usually give is their year of birth, and what the new system now means is that people have to be quite precise in saying exactly how old they are, and this will certainly lead to a renegotiation of the dynamic in the social sphere.”

One of the aims behind the change is to ensure that everyone in a specific school year is considered the same age and, therefore, can speak to each other without using honorifics.

“Age really matters” in South Korean culture, said anthropologist Mo Hyun-joo, because it affects one’s relative social status and dictates which titles and honorifics one must use for others.

“It’s hard to communicate with people without knowing their age,” she added.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies