South Korea scraps its unique age and everyone gets a year or two younger

New 'age' brings the country into alignment with how other countries calculate age

Today's expression: Imagine that
Explore more: Lesson #591
July 20, 2023:

Age is just a number, but in South Korea, it has been two (or even three) numbers. The country has long maintained a traditional way of calculating a citizen's age, where babies are born age 1 and the whole country adds a year on January 1 instead of on their birthdays. But the country recently adopted the international standard, so everyone got a little younger overnight. Plus, learn the English expression "imagine that."

Take control of your English

Use active strategies to finally go from good to great

Listen

  • Learning speed
  • Full speed

Learn

TranscriptActivitiesDig deeperYour turn
No translationsEspañol中文FrançaisPortuguês日本語ItalianoDeutschTürkçePolski

Today’s my birthday. I turn 42; just yesterday I was only 41. If I were in South Korea, I might celebrate with cake and candles, but not with a new age. If I were in South Korea, I would have been 43 yesterday, just like today, just like tomorrow. Unless I were using my age for things like military service, in which case I’d be 42, turning 43 in a few months. Or wait, unless I were calculating my age based on a new law. Then I’d be 42 for the first time today. Confused? We’ll sort it out on today’s lesson

Lesson summary

Hi there, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. And yes, it really is my birthday—the day of the moon landing in 1969 and Colombian Independence Day. So happy Independence Day to our listeners in Colombia.

This is lesson 591 of Plain English, so you can find the transcript and full lesson resources at PlainEnglish.com/591. That is thanks to JR, the producer.

There’s an expression in English: age is just a number. But in South Korea, age is two numbers—or even three numbers—because of the different ways they calculate age there. Or at least it was until a new law took effect, standardizing the way people calculate their ages. As a result , everyone in South Korea just got one or two years younger. I’ll explain in today’s story.

After the story, I’ll show you how to use the English expression “Imagine that.” And we have a song of the week from JR. Let’s get going.

South Koreans all just got a year or two younger

Until recently, if you had asked someone from South Korea their age, they might have hesitated before replying. It’s not because they’re shy: quite the opposite, in South Korea it’s common to ask people their ages.

It’s because in South Korea, they calculate their ages differently.

In most of the world, on the day of your birth, you’re zero years old. After a year has passed, you celebrate your first birthday and you’re now one year old. Each time the calendar passes your birthday, you add another year to your age.

But in South Korea, it’s different. In South Korea, on the day you’re born, you’re one year old. And instead of adding a year to your age on your birthday, you add a year to your age every January 1. That means the whole country gets one year older together every New Year’s Day.

This was confusing the first time I heard it, so let’s take an example. A baby born on December 1, 2022 would be one year old on the date of her birth. Imagine that! Her first day on Earth and she’s already 1.

Then, just one month later, on January 1, 2023, just like everyone else in the country, she would add a year to her age. She’d be two years old in South Korea and just one month old in the rest of the world.

When I first heard of this, I thought it made absolutely no sense. This isn’t even a close approximation of your age. How can a society exist with such an illogical system of calculating age?

But then I read a quote that explained that the South Korean system is actually very accurate—it’s accurate at measuring something else. You see, the South Korean system doesn’t measure how many years you’ve been alive for. The system measures how many years you’ve been alive in.

Think back to that December 1 baby. When she was born on December 1, 2022, she was alive in the calendar year 2022, there’s one. Then, when the calendar flipped on January 1, 2023, just one month later, she was alive in 2023, her second calendar year.

Although she has only been alive for one month, she’s been alive in two calendar years. So the South Korean system describes her as two years old, whereas the international system describes her as one month old. Both are right; they just measure different things.

To make matters even more confusing, even South Korea has used multiple measures of age for different purposes. In many situations, they use the Korean age. For some legal and medical purposes, they’ve used the international age. And for some other legal purposes, like calculating the drinking age and the age of military service, they’ve used a modification of the South Korean age. In that calculation, instead of starting at 1, you start at zero, but you add a year every January 1.

That means that South Koreans have had three ages: the international age, the South Korean age, and the mixture of the two. But that all changed in June of this year, when a new law took effect . South Korea has officially adopted the international age for almost all purposes. You can still use your traditional age in conversation, but all your government documents will show your international age and most government or official functions will use your international age.

This means that everyone will now turn back the clock and be a year or two younger. People with birthdays in the second half of the year will subtract two years from their age; those with birthdays in the first half of the year will subtract one year from their age.

Surveys show that South Koreans are ready for the change. Taiwan, Japan, and North Korea followed similar age customs, but transitioned to the international standard decades ago. As the world gets more global, South Koreans say, they’re ready to align with other countries. Almost 90 percent say they’ll begin to use their international age in conversation and in everyday life.

In South Korea, age is more than just a number. Like in other languages, there are degrees of formality and politeness in Korean. And in South Korea, the form of language you use is much more directly connected to the age of the person you’re talking to. It’s common in South Korea to ask a person their age even before asking their name—it will help you know how to address that person in conversation.

This is leading to some awkward situations. Two children in the same class at school, who were the same age before the transition, might now be separated by a year after the transition. And the “younger” ones might now have to address their classmates in a more formal version of Korean.

The transition might be a happy occasion for anyone who’s recently celebrated a milestone birthday—thirty, for example. If you just turned 30, you’ll have the chance to celebrate turning 30 again next year.

I saw a really funny quote. A South Korean woman was about to turn 30 later this year and she said her parents were pressuring her to get married and start a family. They said that by the time you’re 30, you really need to get serious about family life. Now, she said, she can tell her parents to relax: she’s really only 27. She’s got plenty of time!

Age is more than a number: it’s 2 (or 3?) numbers

The government says that during the transition, nobody will lose any rights. So if you were of the legal drinking age before, you won’t be underage now.

The change won’t affect people every day, but the government hopes it will eliminate confusion. Every time a policy was tied to age, the government had to specify what method of calculating age it used. And it caused confusion.

During the pandemic, one agency said that children between ages 12 and 18 had to show proof of vaccination. They sensibly calculated it based on the Korean age. Another agency made vaccines available to everyone 12 and older under the international system. And so children 12 years old under the Korean system were required to show proof of vaccine, but they were 10 or 11 under the international system, which made them ineligible to get the vaccine.

This is making my head hurt.

Learn English the way it’s really spoken

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

Starter feature

We speak your language

Learn English words faster with instant, built-in translations of key words into your language

QuizListeningPronunciationVocabularyGrammar

Free Member Content

Join free to unlock this feature

Get more from Plain English with a free membership


Starter feature

Test your listening skills

Make sure you’re hearing every word. Listen to an audio clip, write what you hear, and get immediate feedback


Starter feature

Upgrade your pronunciation

Record your voice, listen to yourself, and compare your pronunciation to a native speaker’s

Starter feature

Sharpen your listening

Drag the words into the correct spot in this interactive exercise based on the Plain English story you just heard


Starter feature

Improve your grammar

Practice choosing the right verb tense and preposition based on real-life situations



Free Member Content

Join free to unlock this feature

Get more from Plain English with a free membership

Plus+ feature

Practice sharing your opinion

Get involved in this story by sharing your opinion and discussing the topic with others

Expression: Imagine that