The conformity curve

Mar 1st 2006

Recently I caught some flak for suggesting that today's parents are more determined to be individualists than parents of the past. It's certainly an easy trap to look at older names and just hear them as old, not thinking how fresh and trendy they might have seemed in generations past. (Here's a post from last year on just that topic.) In this case, though, I think the numbers bear me out.

The shorthand on modern America paints the middle of the 20th Century as the national pinnacle of conformity -- the organization man, the feminine mystique. This was followed by the social revolutions of the '60s which sparked a flowering of individualism, for better and for worse. But were the families of the '50s really any more conformist than those who came before? Is post-'60s America really a nation of individualists?

When I was writing my book a few years back, I plotted out a baby name "conformity curve" to address those questions. My intent, honestly, was to debunk some of the the pat little stereotypes. Instead, I confirmed them. The 1940s-50s were indeed the peak of modern conformity, and we've been stalking uniqueness more and more ever since.

The curve shows the percentage of babies receiving a top-25 name in each decade, and today. The 1960s marked a sharp drop in conformity. An even sharper decline began in the 1980s, the first generation of parents raised with the '60s in the rear-view mirror, the new social order taken for granted. At the same time, the novelty rate -- the adoption of new names into the core naming pool -- has been accelerating. Combined, it's a portrait of the curious cultural phenomenon that I jokingly called "lockstep individualism." Across regions, races and classes, many thousands of American parents are united by a common bond: their mutual determination to be nothing like each other.

I don't mean to imply any antagonism. I have no reason to suppose that we all like each other less than in the past. We're just determined to carve out a unique, or at least distinctive, identity for ourselves and our kids. But is it possible for everyone to stand out? In order to be the figure, you need a ground. So certain popular names -- Madison, for example -- are held out as emblems of today's conformity. Madison's highest peak (at #2 in 2001) would have made it only the 12th most popular girl's name of 1957. Conformity just isn't what it used to be.


By Kristin (not verified)
March 1, 2006 7:35 PM

So according to your chart, Americans were big-time name conformists in the 1880s, too. I bet it would climb even higher if we could look further back. I've been researching my family's genealogy, and I believe one reason for the conformity pre-1960s is the prevalence of naming kids after family members. That practice seems to have become dramatically less popular in the past few decades.

Take my family history, for example. Every generation up until the 20th century had multiple Nathans and Miltons. Cousins would often have the same names because they're all named after a grandfather or an uncle or brother. You hardly ever see something like that today.

By Laurie (not verified)
March 1, 2006 9:15 PM

This is all true, and yet, "old-fashioned classics" outnumber the "novelty names" in the top 10. Hannah, Olivia, Abigail, Emma and Emily are established classics that just hadn't been used much in a few decades until they were "rediscovered." It makes me wonder if people are trying to connect to a time and a way of life that is all but vanished. It's certainly one of the reasons I chose Caroline for my daughter.

By Abby (not verified)
March 1, 2006 11:13 PM

My dad's family, from South Carolina, has constantly recycled family names. Up until my second cousin - born a few months ago. Have you broken the popularity of names down by region? I'm in the South.

As for baby names ... it kind of goes like this for me, as weird as it sounds. I want traditional, classic names that won't sound stupid in an obituary in 75 years. And I'm going to name my children after their grand and great-grandparents: Samuel, Austin, James, Rachel, Lily, Salley or Eliza.

These make me sound conformist, or going with what's popular, because these names are popular today. But they have nothing to do with what I've read or seen on TV!

Couldn't it be that many people are reaching back into family names of 80-100 years ago?

By Elizabeth (not verified)
March 2, 2006 2:36 AM

As usual, your take on American social history is fascinating. I love the way you use statistics to bolster your claims. And Laurie, I bet you're right. The so-called "old-fashioned classics" do recall a kinder and gentler era, at least in our modern imagination. In reality, I'm sure we'd all prefer living with dishwashers, refrigerators, and MRIs (not to mention the more serious changes for the better brought about during the Civil Rights Era and women's liberation movement). By naming a little boy Caleb or a baby girl Emmeline, we somehow feel that we can bestow on them some gentility generally lacking in today's Eminem world. But I suspect this trend is largely upheld by white parents--echoes of that past might not appeal to minorities and immigrants.

By Camilla (not verified)
March 2, 2006 12:23 PM

Maybe it's just how we define conformity. Can one conform to individualism, if everyone's doing it? ;)
I think another factor is that in the past they had fewer name ideas at their fingertips as well. The older name books I have have fewer entries than the ones you see now that claim to have four zillion names inside.

By Jennifer (not verified)
March 2, 2006 2:23 PM

I am curious as to whether that graph takes into account that names such as Madison, Hailey, and Brianna all fall into the top 25, but name twins such as Madyson, Haley, and Breanna, not to mention rhyming names such as Addison and Bailey and Kaylie (which could also be a variant on Kayla, which falls in the top 25) into account.

In the 1940's, there was only one way to spell Shirley. You didn't have hundreds and hundreds of parents blessing their little darling with Shirleigh, Chirly, Shirlie, and 12 other spellings, like you see now.

If your graph did not account for this, then I have to stand my ground that naming is no less conformist now than it ever was in this century.


By Shannon (not verified)
March 2, 2006 4:28 PM

The other thing to take into consideration beyond the pool of names that Camilla mentioned is that public schooling as we know it today didn't exist until the late 1800's. That meant that the amount of other kids your child knew was a lot smaller than today. Nowadays kids can come into contact with more than 400 other kids in their 12 years of public school that's an awful lot of names, if 10% of them have the same name and end up in the same class that's got a great impact.

By Elly (not verified)
March 2, 2006 10:29 PM

I have the same question as Jennifer- what happens when you add up the homonyms? Or more dramatically, when you add up the rhyming names? -ayden for the boys and -aylie for the girls immediately come to mind. And all the spellings of Caitlin.

By Jen (not verified)
March 2, 2006 11:53 PM

The variants themselves are because people are trying to be just that little bit different even when naming their children Emily or Jacob by using, for instance, Emilee or Jakob. It actually supports her point.

By Jennifer (not verified)
March 3, 2006 1:04 AM

No matter how you spell the kid's name, it is still Emily when spoken. Aidan is actually a very good example of my point. When you look at Aidan alone, it falls at #40 on the 2004 list. Only 9,708 kids were given the name, which makes it a non-entity on Laura's graph. However, that doesn't account for the 7,055 Aidens, Aydens (2,151), Adens (1,017), Adans (1,096) and Aydans (304). Total of 21331 kids named Aidan, which puts it at #8. Do the same to all the names and your top 25 list changes quite dramatically. Likewise, in the girl list, you have 14 variations on Caitlin, 9 spellings of Hailey, 11 spellings of Jasmine, etc.

In fact, adjusting for spellings, the top 25 boy names accounts for 24% of boy names and the top 25 girl names accounts for 30% of total girls. Adding those together, there is an actual INCREASE in conformity - to 54%.

Another thing that could skew results is that all the old data shows popularity by decade, and we are comparing it to a single year. 2000 and 2005 are vastly different lists.

By Sarah R. (not verified)
March 3, 2006 2:55 AM

As a Sarah, I am determined to name my children as uniquely as possible without crossing the line. But when a cool name enters the 'name consciousness,' what was unique is now standard! It's a pitfall! My nephew was named Aidan in 2000 - now every little boy I meet is Aidan. So much for originality. I want to name my second son Finn (who is a months away from coming) but Finn is climbing the ranks in popularity too. I think I have to abandon it, or have him suffer the same fate as I - 5 other Sarah's in the classroom. We had to call ourselves Sarah B. or Sarah W. I do think people are still conformists with names - the trend has just moved from Biblical to unique. We just want to be different... like everyone else.....!

By Elizabeth (not verified)
March 3, 2006 1:41 PM

I remembered reading something about this on the Name Wizard blog and found it on the Feb. 18, 2005 entry. It doesn't answer the question, but it does speak to the difficulties inherent in this kind of research. Interesting stuff.

By Elly (not verified)
March 3, 2006 1:43 PM

You know, whether or not the spellings thing changes our generation's 'conformity factor,' there's another aspect to it that can't be determined by analyzing the SSA's list: naming conformity among different groups (dare I say classes?) in the US. When in the past could you create such a detailed profile of a family's education, politics or even location based on their children's names? I'm not talking about different ethnicities, either- chances are Kaylyn and Brayden give you a different sense than Erin and Connor, which gives you a different sense again from Maeve and Rowan. And if you asked each set of parents why they chose those names, odds-on they'd mention Ireland, but each set of parents probably wouldn't consider using the others' names. It's unfortunate and uncomfortable, a bit.

By Paz (not verified)
March 4, 2006 5:02 PM

I agree that certain names seem to be associated with certain classes. But it's been my experience that in the real world, the names usually don't break down by class the way I expect them to. To give you an example, I recently went to my 10 year high school reunion. Now, I went to a very prestigious high school in an upper middle class suburb. Four of my classmates that I spoke to had babies. They were all college-educated, professional women in their upper 20's and the kids names were Tyler, Sydney, Norah, and Devi (an Indian name). Norah and Devi don't surprise me, but I wouldn't have expected trendy names like Tyler and Sydney on 50% of the kids. Then, at my work there is a young girl who is a teen-age mother, and she named her baby Henry. I would have expected her kid to be named Tyler and my classmate's son to be named Henry.

By 1975 Stephanie (not verified)
March 6, 2006 4:34 PM

There was an interesting article on Slate a while ago about the "trickle down" of names down class lines that may be relevant and interesting. It claims that names that start out popular in the upper classes eventually trickle down and lose their status.
Today's "Maeve and Rowan" may be tomorrow's "Brittany."

By Nicole R. (not verified)
March 8, 2006 2:40 AM

Abby says: "...I'm going to name my children after their grand and great-grandparents: Samuel, Austin, James, Rachel, Lily, Salley or Eliza. These make me sound conformist, or going with what's popular, because these names are popular today." I would suggest you just happen to have relatives with good names, and you probably wouldn't consider using them otherwise.

I thought something similar -- that I would name a daughter after my great-grandma Grace, but then I realized that while I got the seed of the idea from my great-grandma's name, I also just liked the sound of the name. Other family names are Herman, Clarence, Gertrude, and Tillie, and although I don't respect those ancestors any less, I'm not using their names!

By anonymous (not verified)
March 8, 2006 8:40 PM

I agree with Paz- you can't always guess parents' economic status by their children's name. We don't have much money ourselves but we are college educated, and my favorite names include Lily, Clara, and Caroline. I think it's a matter of personal taste. I was watching "A Baby Story," and was surprised to see that this suburban couple with a lovely home named their baby Lexi- no full name just Lexi- and was surprised since that is one of the epidemic names among lower-class kids where I live.

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By Mark (not verified)
June 23, 2006 10:04 PM

Jennifer hit the nail on the head, and I think she makes the author's point even more strongly. We are doing our best to avoid conformity, while becoming more similar. The proportion of names coming from the top 25 names is actually increasing. However, the variations on the spelling of those names is also increasing. As usual, the truth can't be described by a simple yes/no answer. It is a fascinating finding.

By Tarnow (not verified)
August 26, 2010 12:26 AM

I find that the conformity change is even larger if you just consider the prevalent of the most popular name. But what happens if you put the names in ethnic baskets? Perhaps the great conformity came from only one group of people?

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