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How Old Are You? South Korea Tries to Simplify What Should Be a Simple Question.


Next year, Koreans will be a year or two younger – if only on paper.

South Korean lawmakers voted on Thursday to standardize how the government calculates a person’s age, in an effort to avoid using some alternative methods — includes a special Korean tradition of counting people by 1 at birth and adding a year to January 1.

The unifying idea behind a standard has gained traction, even as it collides with a tradition that involves many aspects of everyday life: from the mundane tasks of filling out paperwork to the legal milestones such as the right to vote.

However, traditions can die hard, and there is no guarantee that the new system will be used in more informal circumstances. For example, in Korea’s hierarchical society, age determines how people talk to each other, and the law cannot force people to follow a single system in those situations.

“Korea is getting younger and younger!” Ministry of Justice said in a statement asked people to “unite” behind the new system for official documents that would bring the country in line with international standards.

Voting almost unanimously, the National Assembly passed the bill and sent it to the cabinet, which must be approved before it is sent to President Yoon Suk Yeol. The simplified structure is promote by the president during his campaign earlier this year. He is expected to sign the bill, clearing the way for it to take effect in six months.

Using only an age-counting system would “reduce unnecessary conflicts related to age and establish social practices consistent with international standards,” bill he said.

Koreans have been counting their ages in three different ways for decades. In everyday life, they are born one year old and count each New Year’s day. In some contexts — such as when determining their drinking, smoking or military service status — they simply subtract their year of birth from their current year. And for most legal and official purposes, they follow the rest of the world: people start from scratch and add a year to each birthday.

Once the bill is signed into law, the government will follow an international approach. Children under 1 year old will be counted in months.

The ambiguity surrounding age-counting methods has caused a lot of confusion. It has led to disputes over age-based insurance payments in traffic accidents. Children’s medicine lists target ages, without specifying how the ages are calculated. A dispute over a company’s collective bargaining agreement erupted before the South Korean Supreme Court earlier this year, as the agreement did not specify what system the company’s age-based salary bracket follows. (The court used world standards.) The lack of clarity about vaccines and Covid testing eligibility has led to chaos at medical clinics and testing sites.

The traditional age-counting method is deeply ingrained in Korean culture. For example, the year of birth, not the date of birth, is the basis for Korean zodiac system. The use of terms such as “oppa” or “hyung” (address for older brother), and “unnie” and “noona” (meaning older sister) depends on the age of the people involved. conversation. conversation, and that also depends on the year of birth.

But the bill has received wide support from the Korean public. More than 80 percent of the country’s citizens survey by the government in September said it supported the bill, citing several reasons: It would address confusion and inconvenience caused by different methods of calculating age; breaking the hierarchical culture maintained by the Korean age-counting method; and “people’s cognitive age is lower.”

More than 85% of respondents in the same survey said they would also switch to the standard method in daily life if the bill was passed.

Whether people will really abandon the traditional system remains to be seen. That, experts say, will take some time.

Shin Jiyoung, a professor of Korean language and literature at Korea University, said: “The traditional age calculation is difficult to give up. “It is very attached to the Korean language.”

She added: “It is important to acknowledge why we continue to use it despite how confusing it is.

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