The Baby Name State of the Union
One baby name selection is a personal choice. Four million baby names a year, taken together, make up something more: a portrait of the state of the American psyche. It's a picture worth looking at closely.
We had a reminder of that fact this weekend, when the New York Times ran a cover story revealing that maternal age (the age at which women have children) is a key driver of societal differences. That's an insight names already taught us years ago. Starting with the 2004 election, I tracked a seeming paradox in baby naming. If you looked at the most liberal and most conservative pockets of the country, they seemed to name babies opposite to their ideologies. Progressives were most likely to choose names that were traditional, single-sex, and based in Christian tradition. Conservatives were most likely to choose names that were newly created, androgynous, and non-religious.
The explanation for this paradox was a growing gap in maternal age. Progressive voters increasingly have their children older than conservative voters, for reasons closely entangled with education. A 35-year-old mom, naturally, is going to have a different style sense than an 18-year-old mom. That same growing gap could explain a whole lot more than just baby names, as I described in a 2009 column:
"Going head to head in a decision that parents take very seriously, style beat values by a mile. So perhaps the style-making variable of maternal age plays a bigger role in the cultural divide than we realize. In fact, if you start with nothing but a maternal age gap, you end up predicting a lot of the behaviors that divide red and blue America....What it adds up to is that the age when you have children isn't just one more variable in the cultural spreadsheet. It's your life story, and the life story of your community."
That was a decade ago. What are baby names telling us about American society today? The portrait they paint is of cultural fracturing. Liberals and conservatives are moving farther apart. Various racial and ethnic groups are moving farther apart. States and regions are moving farther apart. And most fundamentally, individuals are moving farther apart. Baby name data suggests not just an "us vs. them" attitude but a deeper "me vs. everybody else" attitude. The one thing we all seem to have in common today is our desire to be nothing at all like one another.
We see this fracturing clearly at the top of the baby name popularity charts, which represent an ever-shrinking slice of the population. Today's top 10 boys' names together account for a smaller percentage of babies than John alone once did. Today's average American baby receives a name that's relatively uncommon nationwide, and concentrated in specific communities. Statistically speaking, there is no more "normal" in baby names.
In part, the decline in consensus represents a divergence in viewpoints. In the past, regional and even ideological differences didn't play out on the baby name charts, whereas now you see them strongly. The two tables below represent the top boys' names in the most politically extreme states in two years. On the left you see the lower-48 states with the highest vote differentials in the 1960 election, Nebraska (most heavily Republican) and Rhode Island (Democrat). You'll see that four of their top five names were the same. On the right are current rankings for the most extreme states in the 2016 election, Wyoming and California. None of their top five choices are the same, and most are wildly different.
Not only have communities diverged, but consensus within a community is disappearing. Those top six names in 1960 Nebraska accounted for one out of every five Nebraskan boys born. Last year, the top six names in Nebraska accounted for one boy out of twenty. Even groups with conservative naming traditions are seeing an explosion of diversity. For instance, the core classic Spanish boys' names traditionally held strong in the U.S., even as comparable English names fell out of fashion. But today, names like Juan and José are at their lowest point in half a century, despite a growing Hispanic population.
As American parents across the spectrum turn toward ever more novel and individual names, they're inevitably turning away from something as well. Children are less likely to be named after family members today. Biblical names are at an all-time historic low, and are increasingly selected based on style impact rather than religious role models. (Duplicitous Delilah now outpaces Mary as a baby name.) Political and military leaders no longer inspire namesakes. Overall, names based on connection and shared societal meaning are being replaced by names based on fashion and personal meaning.
The increasingly divided nature of our society is apparent in every realm today. Most often, though, we talk of it as two camps separated by a widening gulf. The resurgence of "nationalism," for instance, suggests a kind of divisive unity, with one group banding tightly together against outsiders. The baby name data reveal no points of unity at all. Even within in-groups, everyone is shaking off traditions and trying to stand out as unique. That's what the names tell us, and past experience suggests we should listen.