South Koreans became a year or two younger on Wednesday after a law standardizing the way the government counts age took effect.
There are three common ways to count age in South Korea, but the government has changed its civil code to recognize one: starting from zero on a person’s date of birth and adding a year at each birthday.
This is the age-counting method used most often around the world, but it is a departure from the country’s most popular method, often called “Korean age.” Under that system, a person is considered 1 year old at birth, and a year is added to their age each Jan. 1. This meant that an infant born on Dec. 31 was considered 2 years old the next day.
Why It Matters: The mess of systems caused confusion and errors.
The three systems for counting age have confused and inconvenienced South Koreans in all kinds of situations including health recommendations, labor disputes and social hierarchy.
For example, some health officials used inconsistent age standards for coronavirus vaccinations. So, a person could be required to show proof of vaccination based on their age under one system but would not actually be old enough to get a vaccine under another system.
Supporters of the change say the new standard will reduce these conflicts.
But it does not yet apply to all circumstances.
Children will continue to start elementary school using the country’s third counting system, known as “year age”: Age-counting starts as zero at birth, then adds a year every Jan. 1. Under this system, a baby born on Dec. 31 turns 1 the next day.
For now, “year age” will also still be used to determine whether a person can drink, smoke or serve in the military. So, a person born in any month of 2004 is considered 19 years old and, therefore, is eligible for all those things.
Background: The other counting methods are a deeply rooted custom.
The new official age-counting method has been used for most legal and official purposes in South Korea since the 1960s.
South Korean lawmakers approved a bill in December to scrap the other age-counting methods and “minimize unnecessary conflicts related to age and to establish social practices that conform to international standards.”
There was broad support for the change from politicians and the public. More than 80 percent of citizens the government surveyed in September said that they supported the bill.
Suh Chan S., a professor in the department of sociology at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, told The New York Times last year that while other countries including China and Taiwan used similar age-counting methods, South Korea was the only country that still officially recognized them.
It remains to be seen whether the other age-counting methods will be abandoned all together.