South Koreans may soon knock at least a year off their ages if the country’s next president gets his way.
Yoon Suk-yeol, a former chief prosecutor who takes office next month, has promised to abolish the country’s unique method of calculating age.
In the Korean system, all babies are already one year old the day they are born and get a year older every January 1. That means children born December 31 turn 2 years old the next day.
The traditional method of age calculation was once widely used across East Asia, but other countries long ago adopted the internationally accepted system.
Its origins are unclear. One theory says the system is meant to recognize the life of a fetus. Others say the system stems from ancient numerical systems that had no concept of zero.
South Korea at various points has attempted to move away from the traditional way of calculating age, but those efforts often led to more confusion.
As a result, South Korea now has three methods for determining age and South Koreans must figure out what method applies to which law or administrative process.
Since the 1960s, South Korean official documents and laws have used the international system, in which babies are born at age 0 and add a year every birthday.
However, in social settings nearly every South Korean continued to calculate their age using the traditional method.
There is also the so-called year-age method, in which babies are born at 0 and gain a year every January 1. This method is used to determine school grades and when males must perform their mandatory military service.
In recent years, South Koreans have increasingly supported simplifying the age system. Critics say the current setup is confusing and creates awkward social interactions, especially given South Korea's Confucianism-influenced culture, where age often determines how people interact with each other.
According to a January poll by Hankook Research, 71% of South Koreans support abolishing the traditional age system.
Those born later in the calendar year often feel especially disadvantaged, particularly as children, since they are placed in classes with much older, more advanced students but are seen as the same age. That can add even more pressure to South Korea's highly competitive and stress-filled academic environment.
Lee Yun-chul, who helps run a cafe in the northeast province of Gangwon, said her son, who is 9 years old according to the traditional system, is seen as a slow learner at school.
“But he’s not actually slow. He was just born later [in October], compared to the other kids in his ‘year-age’ group,” she said.
As a Korean male, those born later in the year must complete their mandatory military service many months earlier than their peers. Although the difference may seem small, it can affect important education or job-related decisions during key career moments.
Even for those born earlier in the year, there are still challenges. Until the early 2000s, Koreans born in January or February entered school a year earlier than others in their “year-age” group. That is because the Korean school system used the Chinese Zodiac calendar, which goes from March until February.
But that presented challenges in how to form relationships and address classmates, because Koreans typically only refer to each other as “friends” if they are the same age. Additionally, Koreans typically do not use first names to refer to those older than them.
“I was uncomfortable when I was in school because of my age,” said Shim Hanui, who was born in January 1990, and therefore entered school a year early. Korean custom said she should only be “friends” with others born in 1990, but most of her classmates were born in 1989.
"I didn't know if I should be friends with them," said Shim, an office worker who lives on the outskirts of Seoul. Now that she’s older, she said there are fewer occasions to know when someone was born.
She still wants to see the Korean age system abolished, though.
“I think it will reduce a lot of social costs by avoiding such confusion,” she said.
Most recently, many South Koreans became frustrated after health officials used inconsistent age standards for coronavirus vaccinations. As a result, many were required to show proof of vaccination even though they were not eligible to get vaccines.
There has also been confusion about who is eligible for certain youth-based government assistance programs, such as subsidized housing or small business support.
Yoon, who was born in December, made abolishing the Korean age system a major campaign promise.
Under Yoon’s proposal, international age would eventually become the single standard for all legal and social purposes, though the effort will likely have to be rolled out in phases, given its complexity.
Though similar attempts have failed in the past, Yoon’s proposal may succeed, according to many analysts, who note the change has support among both major political parties and the public.
“Korean age is not wrong; it is only a Confucian cultural custom,” said Han Sae-eok, a professor at Dong-A University in the southern city of Busan. “But it needs to be changed in order to reduce the gap between customs and institutions and to promote consistent and clear instruction.”