Home Advice & How-ToFun The Most Popular Baby Names: How (and Why) They Changed Between Generations
Home Advice & How-ToFun The Most Popular Baby Names: How (and Why) They Changed Between Generations

The Most Popular Baby Names: How (and Why) They Changed Between Generations

by Fred Decker

In some respects, humans stay remarkably consistent over the centuries.  Many of the defining characteristics of humanity are just as visible now as they were in the days of ancient Egypt and Rome.  Even fart jokes go back at least 4000 years

Those core traits are only part of the story, though.  Each generation — especially in the modern world — manages to carve out its own unique identity, distinguishing itself from the generation before.  Those traits can show in things like clothing fashions and musical styles, or in less ephemeral details like the most popular baby names.  Baby names are well-documented, so they provide a fascinating way to look at generational differences. 

Defining Generations: The Name Game

Before we start comparing generations, it’s helpful to lay out definitions of each generation we’re going to discuss.  Consider the Baby Boom generation, for example.  Most definitions describe Boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964, the years of post-war optimism and economic growth. 

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Some sources divide the Boomer demographic into two smaller cohorts, reflecting their parentage.  Boomers born in the first half of that almost two-decade span were mostly children of the so-called Greatest Generation, born before 1927, whose lives were shaped by the hardscrabble years of the war and the Depression.  Later Boomers were mostly children of the “Silent Generation,” born in the 30s and 40s, and coming of age in the postwar years. 

After the Boomers comes Generation X, born from 1965 through 1980.  From 1981 through 1996 we have the Millennials, who had the misfortune to begin their working lives around the time of the 2008 economic crash.  Then from 1997 until roughly 2010 we have Generation Z, the most recent to reach parenting and child-naming age.  Finally, we have Generation Alpha (that one’s not widely used yet), which includes babies born from 2011 through the present day. 

You’ll see some minor variation in those dates, if you check multiple sources, but those are the ones we’ll work with for the purposes of our comparison. 

Spokeo, Demographics and Research

In addition to its everyday usefulness in looking up phone numbers or addresses, Spokeo is also a powerful tool for demographics-related research.  If you don’t have access to this kind of data through commercial and academic databases (which can cost thousands annually), an inexpensive Spokeo subscription can put a wealth of information at your fingertips. 

Whether you’re a community planner or activist, a high schooler working on a project or a would-be entrepreneur assessing the viability of your business plan, Spokeo’s rich datasets can help you find the information you need.  This comparison of baby names is all in fun, of course, but it illustrates what a useful resource Spokeo is. 

Spokeo’s data incorporates a wealth of information from a vast array of public sources, including historical census information. With that range of information sources at their disposal, it was straightforward for our research team to compile a list of every given name for each year, and then sort them by popularity. That report provides the raw data for the rest of this blog post (complemented here and there from outside sources).

Most Popular Baby Names During the Boomer Generation

During the 1940s, James was consistently the most popular name for baby boys, and that trend continued for roughly the first half of the Baby Boom generation.  James would remain the top boys’ name for Boomers until 1953, when Robert briefly topped the list.  Then from 1954 through the end of the Boomer generation in 1964, Michael would remain the No. 1 boys’ name.  The sole exception was 1960, when David was the top pick. 

Those names were all consistently in the top five picks for boys throughout the Boomer era, and with their relative popularity varying slightly with each passing year. 

For girls, Mary had been the most popular name through the 1940s, but that changed in 1947, early in the Boomer era, when Linda became the most popular girls’ name and held the top spot through 1952.  Mary returned to the top spot in 1953 and held it through 1962, when Lisa became the most popular name for the final couple of years of the Boomer era. 

There was more variation in the top five names for girls over the boomer era.  Aside from the three names that took the top spot, Barbara, Patricia, Susan, Debra (also Deborah), and Karen all took turns among the most popular names at one point or another. 

Most Popular Baby Names for Generation X

The shift from younger Boomers to Generation X was not as dramatic as the one from earlier generations to the Boomers themselves, and that’s reflected in the selection of baby names for boys.  Michael was the top boy’s name in all but one year from 1954 through 1997, which includes the entire span of Gen X. 

There was some movement below the No.1 spot.  Christopher climbed into the top 5 in 1972 and Jason made the cut in 1973, and both would remain there through the remaining years of the Generation X era.  Their rise dropped other perennially popular names like Robert, David, and John farther down the list. 

Among girls’ names, Lisa remained the No. 1 choice through the balance of the 60s before losing out to Jennifer in 1970.  Jennifer would remain the top girls’ name through 1980, the end of the Generation X years.  Kimberley, Amy, Michelle, and Melissa all gained enough popularity to reach the top five during those years. 

Most Popular Baby Names for Millennials

After topping the list of boys’ names for a quarter-century you’d think that Michael would begin to fade, and that some other name would take over the No. 1 spot.  You’d be wrong.  Michael remained the top boys’ name for the entirety of the Millennial era, from 1981 through 1996.  There are some possible reasons for its unusual run at the top, which we’ll circle back to shortly, but it’s still pretty impressive. 

As always, there was more movement in the rest of the top 5 than in the No. 1 spot.  Over the 15 years of the Millennial generation Joshua, Daniel, Andrew, Jacob, and Tyler would all make appearances in the handful of most popular names. 

Among girls’ names, Jennifer held its place in the top spot through 1984, then Jessica took over the No. 1 position from 1985 through 1990.  Ashley would hold the top spot in 1991 and 1992, then Jessica returned to the top spot for three more years.  It wasn’t until 1996, the last Millennial birth year, that Emily rose to the No. 1 spot. 

Sarah, Melissa, Amanda, Samantha, and Brittany all enjoyed high levels of popularity during those years, but the big story was Emily’s rise into the top 5 positions after years of being perceived as old-fashioned. 

Most Popular Baby Names for Generation Z

Michael’s long run as the most popular boys’ name would continue for the first two years of the Generation Z era, before yielding the top spot to Jacob.  Jacob would be the No. 1 boys’ name right through 2010, the last (for our purposes) of the Generation Z birth years. 

In the remainder of the top 5, Joshua, Ethan, and Daniel would all enter the list.  So would traditional favorites William, Alexander, and Andrew, and new arrival Jayden. 

Among girls’ names, Emily started the Gen Z era in the top spot, and would retain it until 2008 when the not-dissimilar Emma took over the top spot.  Further down in the rest of the top 5, names including Hannah, Madison, Alexis, Olivia, Ava, Abigail, and Sophia all took a turn among the top choices. 

Most Popular Baby Names for Generation Alpha

Among boys’ names, Jacob retained the top spot through 2012 before giving way to Noah, which would be the No. 1 pick until 2017.  That’s when Liam took over the top spot, which it retained through 2021 (the last year of our study).  Farther down the list, Oliver, Elijah, Mason, and Logan all enjoyed top-5 popularity through this past decade. 

The top girls’ name for the first few years of this generation was Sophia, but Emma returned to the No. 1 position in 2014 and held it through 2018.  From 2019 through 2021, Olivia has held down the top spot. 

Within the top 5 the pleasantly old-fashioned Charlotte and Amelia have seen a resurgence in popularity, perhaps tapping into the same well of “retro” fashionability that made Emily a popular pick one generation earlier. 

Factors That Make Baby Names Popular

It’s hard to know exactly why parents choose a specific name, at least without asking them (which isn’t really practical).  That being said, it’s possible to infer a lot of the reasoning and — in turn — how that reasoning has changed over time.  The first thing to remember is that it’s the parents of each generation who choose the names, so they always reflect that earlier generation’s sympathies and outlook. 

With that in mind, here are a few obvious factors that go into selecting a baby’s name:  

Family and tradition

That’s likely why we still see lots of traditional names attached to Boomers, especially given the longstanding trend of giving the new baby a name that honors an existing family member: a parent; an aunt or uncle; or a grandparent or great-grandparent. 


John, James, Mary, Hannah, Sarah, Andrew, Peter, Michael, and Daniel are all names found in the Bible, which gives them a reliable core constituency.  They’re also traditional enough and mainstream enough to appeal to non-churchgoing parents, which means they have two potent streams of popularity. 

Recently, as parents look for less common names but want to stay true to evangelical roots, there has been a rise in more explicitly biblical names such as Ethan, Noah, Elijah, and Jeremiah. 

Nostalgia, contrarianism, and the charm of the “oldfashioned”

Names sometimes go out of fashion because they become too unfashionable or too explicitly linked with the elderly (nobody’s naming their baby girl Mildred right now, for example).  Yet, with the passage of time, many of those same names regain popularity in a spirit of “everything old is new again.” 

Some of these “vintage” names that have surged back to popularity in recent years include Emily, Abigail, Ava, and Charlotte.  For parents whose main motivation is not spiritual, this can account for some of the resurgence of biblical names as well. 

Heroes and pop culture

This is a big one, and it’s possible to trace a significant rise in its importance over the past few generations.  John and Robert, for example, likely earned much of their 1960s popularity from the high-profile Kennedy brothers (though John Lennon probably had an impact as well).  James’ long-term popularity may have something to do with the long-running James Bond franchise. 

And would the name Michael have continued its long-term popularity through the 1980s without the collective achievements of Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Mike Tyson?  It’s hard to say.  Liam probably owes its current popularity to movie star Liam Hemsworth (and Liam Neeson, among Star Wars Fans); Logan’s brief 2017 bump into the top 5 corresponded with the movie of that name, starring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. 

Similarly, as we look at girls’ names, Jessica’s 1980s popularity coincided with Jessica Tandy’s late-career popularity in “Cocoon” and “Driving Miss Daisy”; Jessica Lange’s peak as one of Hollywood’s leading female stars; and Kathleen Turner’s smoldering turn as the voice of Jessica Rabbit in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

The rise of Emma’s popularity among girls begins early in this century after Emma Watson began playing Hermione in the Harry Potter films, and Emma Stone’s popularity in movies from “Easy A” to “Crazy, Stupid Love” and “La La Land” have probably helped keep it among the top choices.  Olivia’s rise to popularity may have something to do with actors Olivia Munn and Olivia Wilde, and singer Olivia Rodrigo. 

A Fun Exercise, Especially for Potential Parents

Taking a dive into demographic data isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, as a rule.  Most of us don’t geek out on birth rates or vital statistics, though they have unquestioned importance in public policy.  Unlike bare-bones stats, baby names are fun and easy to relate to, as well. 

They’re especially interesting if you’re currently searching for a baby name (or think you might, soon).  If nothing else, a list of currently popular names can help you pick one that’s less popular, so your child won’t go through life surrounded by namesakes. 

You may never take this kind of dive into the data yourself, but — if you should ever feel the need — it’s good to know that Spokeo’s here for you.