“From a sociology perspective, customs are so deeply rooted in a society that change won’t happen overnight,” he said. “The change is desirable, but we’ll have to see.”
But other Koreans don’t see any benefit to changing the age system, or the hierarchy that underlies it. It represents more than a number, they say — it’s the foundation of human connection.
“It might be tiresome to keep track of everyone’s ages, but once you establish an older-younger relationship, the connection between people flourishes more naturally,” said Chung Hae-rang, a 63-year-old retired teacher from the city of Bucheon, just outside Seoul.
It also creates bonds in other ways, he said. If you change that system, he said, among college freshmen, for instance, “there would be some who would be permitted into bars and others who are not” under the international age system. If everyone born in the same year is the same age, that problem is eliminated, he added.
Cho Moon-ju, who works for a Seoul university, also said that the Korean system increases camaraderie among people — even strangers — who were born in the same year. That is how she has connected with other parents at her children’s schools, said Ms. Cho, who opposes Mr. Yoon’s plan to change the system.
Strangers born in the same year can also assume that they have been through similar difficulties, she said.
As an example, she recalled one of South Korea’s most devastating disasters — the 2014 accident in which nearly 300 high school students drowned on a ferry. “If you realize that you and someone you just met were both in the 11th grade when the Sewol ferry sank,” she said, “you share common, deep feelings.”