The conformity curve
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.