Baby Names Are Getting More Unique in the U.S., Even When Times Are Tough

Unique baby names have been on the rise since the 1800s in the U.S. Education Images/UIG via Getty Images Unique baby names have been on the rise since the 1800s in the U.S. Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
Unique baby names have been on the rise since the 1800s in the U.S. Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

In the toe-tapping, up-tempo song "The Name Game," Shirley Ellis sings, "Shirley, Shirley/bo Birley/Bonana fanna fo Firley/Fee fy mo Mirley, Shirley!" Sounds like an easy enough game, at least in the mid '60s when the most popular baby names were as simple as Lisa, Mary, John and David. But what on Earth would Ellis do with the multisyllabic names more popular in the 2000s, like Isabella, Mackenzie, Christopher and Sebastian?

A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology considered whether the economic threat of the Great Recession of 2008-2010, which the Department of the Treasury identifies as the worst since the Great Depression, had any bearing on a trend of unique children's names in the United States. To find out, researchers scoured a 100 percent sample of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) database of baby names, which included about 350 million American babies born between 1880 and 2015. The authors considered "common names" as the most popular name or names among the 10, 25 or 50 most popular of each year and gender.

According to the researchers, baby names are good indicators of cultural values, such as the desire to stand out. In one study, parents in more recently settled "frontier" regions, like the Western U.S. relative to the Eastern U.S., were less likely to give their children popular names, possibly due to values of independence. Fewer common names in a society indicate the desire for individualism, while more common names are a sign of communalism.

"In previous research, we'd found that children's names became more unique 1880-[2007]. Many had speculated that the emphasis on individualism and uniqueness would fade during the Great Recession — that there would be a cultural 'reset,'" states Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me and a co-author of the study, in an email. "We found that this did not occur, at least for children's names. Parents continued the trend toward more unique names during and after the recession."

The study looked at two large states that were affected differently by the recession: California, where housing prices plunged and unemployment grew, and Texas, where housing costs remained relatively stable. In both states, parents continued the decades-long trend of choosing fewer common names during and after the recession. "So actually, our finding was that economic threat did not have much impact on children's names," says Twenge.

However, the study did show some conflicting data. Years with less employment or with more income inequality were correlated with fewer common names. Yet higher median family income (i.e., better economic condition) was also linked to fewer common names. But because there was little evidence of a link between names and economic cycles — like child poverty rates and stock market changes — economic conditions likely play only a small role in parents' name choices.

The study authors say that the general trend toward uncommon names could be partially attributed to the breadth of information online on popular baby names. But it really comes down to views on uniqueness, not name popularity.

Twenge says that besides the limited influence of economics, the generational tendency toward more individualism is largely responsible for the trend away from common names. "In recent years, most parents are Millennials, a generation raised to believe in positive self-views and uniqueness," she says. "They are passing on these beliefs to their children with the very first parenting decision they make."