Korea’s View on Age: My Thoughts

Korea’s View on Age: My Thoughts

So I have decided to learn Korean. I’ve actually wanted to start learning Korean long before ever moving here and even tried to study. But the most that ever came from it was learning how to read Hangeul as well as the basic hello, goodbye, please give me, and thank you. I could also recognize a few random words as long as they were written down and not spoken. So I’ve pretty much started over this year but I fail at being consistent for reasons that sound more like complaints and excuses than anything else. So I’ll just refrain from listing them.

The book I’m using is called Korean Made Easy for Beginners by Seung-eun Oh. I’ve only made it through the first two chapters of the book and so far, I am liking it. But for someone that’s new to language learning, I find it a tad heavy on the vocabulary, with 20 to 30 new words per chapter. Each chapter ends with a page on Korean culture.

On the last chapter that I completed, the culture topic was on why Koreans ask your age upon first meeting/getting to know you. To over simplify it, the reason is due to the whole “showing respect” thing and knowing which level of speech to use with the other person. Before coming to Korea, I was pretty familiar with the notion of age in Korea and the speech levels so nothing was really surprising.

Is Age Really a Big Deal?

Last night I was watching the popular show Produce 101. For anyone that’s not familiar, it’s a show where pop star/idol trainees compete to form an 11-member group voted upon by the viewers of the show. It’s pretty much similar to any other musical/dance competition show that airs in the states such as American idol or So You Think You Can Dance. I remember hearing about Produce 101 when it was airing live but my interest wasn’t enough to try and watch any of the episodes.


Well, I’m watching it now and one of the things that jump out to me is the emphasis this show places on the ages of the contestants. The youngest contestant in the show is 15 years old. The oldest contestant on the show is 30. But since we are dealing with Korean Age here, the 15 year old is most likely only 13 or 14 and the 30 year old is probably only 28 or 29.

Countless times the judges on the show have called this man old and the host even referred to him as “ancient” just because he is twice the age of the youngest contestant. And it bothers me to NO END. Since when is the age of 30 ancient??? It all just sent me into a spiral of thoughts that I just couldn’t stop so now I’m writing a blog post on it just to try and get everything out.

The contestants on PD101 all vary in ages. There are contestants between the ages of 16 and 19, and there are contestants between the ages of 20 and 30. I just found it really annoying that the 30 year old is constantly questioned about his age and people saying “aren’t you too old”? But it’s also weird because there are constants on the show that are 26 and 27 years old which is not that far off from age 30. They could have all attended the same high school at the same time for all we know. That’s how close they are in age, but the show continues to make him look like his true age is 50 or something. Never mind the fact that at age 30, he looks no older than 23; 25 at the absolute oldest.


sung woo
This is said guy. 30 where??


They did the same thing on the first season of PD101 with a contestant who made it quite far in the show and lovingly took on the name “Auntie Hwang”. On the show, she was said to be 28 or 29 but towards the end of her run on the show it was found out that she was indeed 30 or 31 (Korean age). I just found it sad that she felt the need to lie about her age to get on the show.


auntie hwang
Auntie Hwang


I also find it strange that for these two contestants, it’s not like they were some random people off the street. They were actually attached to a Korean entertainment company who agreed to send them to the show. If they were “too old”, an entertainment company wouldn’t even be giving them the time of day. They simply wouldn’t want them.

In one of the group battles on the show, we meet two contestants that are 27 years old. And one of them (who has been quite popular for the past couple episodes) had a whole speech about how he is old and doesn’t have much time left to go after his dreams. Many of the older contestants constantly say how if they don’t succeed on the show then “this is the end” for them, and it makes me so sad. All I can think is, at the age of 27???

My Thoughts

Thinking about all of this last night made me think more about how stressful Korean culture really is. Here in Korea, it’s very common (almost universal) that kids are in school pretty much forever. They wake up and go to school between 7 and 8am and don’t leave the school building until 10 or 11pm. They do nothing but study all day, every day. And for the students that don’t have to stay at school after the school day is over, they most likely go to a private academy for a multitude of other subjects. At the school that I currently work at, the kids don’t leave until 10pm and many of them actually live in the school dorm.

So these kids study from the time they enter school at the age of 5 all the way up until they are 18. Their entire school career leads up to taking the SAT which serves as the ONE and ONLY thing that will get them into college. If they fail, they have to wait an entire year to take it again. And then, if they get accepted, they then have to go to college, of course, so that’s even more studying.

So I say all that to say that from the outside looking in, it looks like the Korean youth don’t even have any time to explore the things that they might really be passionate about. Their life is so heavily focused on academics that that’s all they know. Age 5 to 18 they have to study. Then between the ages of 18 and 20 they have to enter college and the men possibly even have to do military service. Then by the time they hit age 26 or 27, they are now being considered old. By the time they hit age 30, they are considered too old to do anything and they need to already have a job and a network of connections.

It all just baffles me. How can you give someone a time frame of 6 to 7 years to truly go after and actually achieve their dreams before you deem them “too old”? It’s no wonder many adults here in Korea come off extremely immature. I don’t say that to be rude. I really don’t. I’m just making observations. I just don’t get it. It’s true that there is pressure like this in the States when it comes to age but it seems way heavier in Korea. In the U.S. there is a bit more leniency when it comes to doing what you want to do.

I know that it’s way too much to ask that an entire culture change their ways and just stop. And once again, I understand the whole respect thing and the different levels of speech. But one can only hope that this view on age and what’s deemed as “old” can begin to shift in future generations. With all the societal pressures put on Korean youth, I feel like age really doesn’t need to be one of them. Especially when age 30 does not signify failure if you haven’t achieved everything you hoped for.

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