The Transformation of the Average American Baby

Mar 9th 2017


What is the average American baby named? It's not a question we often ask. We talk a lot about the most popular names, but those don't necessarily represent the shape of the fast-changing name population. Suppose, instead, that we try looking at typical names the way we look at typical housing prices or personal income: by tracking medians.

The median is the midpoint value. Half of individuals rank above it, half below. To find a year's median baby names, I've tallied up the boys' and girls' name popularity charts until I reached the point where half of babies received a more common name and half less common.

Tracking those median names over time reveals that the average baby name today is dramatically different from those of past generations. The big story isn't about which specific name happens to lie at the 50% point. No single name is a good portrait of a whole era's tastes. The real story emerges in how far down the popularity rankings the average names lie.

The chart below shows how far you had to count down through the most popular names to account for half of boys and girls born in a given year, taken at 15-year intervals since the 1950s.

In 1955, most American parents were content to choose from among about 80 broadly liked names. As of 2015, it took more than 470 names to satisfy the same proportion of parents.

That abstract-sounding stat has a real impact on how names come across. Take a look at the percentage of babies receiving the specific midpoint names in each year:

As the chart shows, the average baby name of the 1950s was vastly more popular than today's average. In 1955, the median boy's name Edward was given to nearly one baby out of every hundred. (That's almost equal to the popularity of today's #1 name.) By 2015, just one baby in every 782 received the median boy's name, Luca.

In other words, the typical baby today receives a fairly uncommon name. The atypical is now typical.

You can interpret that dramatic shift in positive terms, as a rejection of conformity pressures and a flowering of diversity, creativity and individuality. Or you can view it negatively, as a decline in consensus and common ground as everyone strives to be special, standing apart from their neighbors. Whichever spin you put on it, the population-wide shift shapes the impact of every name we choose.


Comments

1
March 9, 2017 1:52 PM

Fantastic data analysis!

When naming my child recently, I tried to be different by going for popular. (And yet I still find myself annoyed when others use this consistently common name).

2
March 9, 2017 3:25 PM

I wonder if names have become more regional in this time.  I live in a pocket of Ryans, which just about never makes these lists.  (There are so many Ryans in my children's small school, that both my sons are friends with a Ryan D., and there are two Ryan Ds in one sons class.)

3
March 12, 2017 2:15 AM

Megan,

I found the same thing at my daughter's school! there are 7 Abby/Abigail's in Three clasrooms in the 6th grade. Glad I didn't name her Abigail!

4
April 2, 2017 4:33 PM

I think the "regional pockets" theory is an interesting one. For example so many friends have children named Miles that, despite the fact that it's a longtime favorite of mine, we will not be using it. But Miles is somewhere in the #200-300 range in terms of baby name popularity. Noah is much more popular, and yet I've never even met a baby Noah. 

As we zero in on a name for our forthcoming baby, I'm tempted to start asking friends to steal local preschool class rolls for us to cross-reference. I love Ada, and it's currently #586 in the US, but what if there are hundreds of Adas in our neighborhood regardless?

5
April 30, 2017 3:17 PM

This is so cool! My nerdy self loves the intersection of math and baby names. I also wonder if the pendulum swings both ways. Like, I'm sure it wouldn't have swung as far, but was there a wider rage before 1955, or was it even narrower then? I've heard some pretty unusual 1800s/early 1900s names, myself, even if they were mostly family names being used as first names.