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Most Popular Baby Names Today Versus 50 Years Ago

They're not your grandparent's names — and probably not yours, either

Two babies sit facing camera wearing stick on name tags on white tshirts that say Pat and Amy

Photodisc / Getty Images

En español | Michael and Jennifer, you're just not as popular as you used to be. Make way for Liam and Olivia.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has released its list of the most popular baby names for 2020, and most of the top names from 1970 have been pushed far, far down the charts.

Out with the old

Consider Michael, the most popular male baby name from 1961 through 1998. The Biblical name has been declining steadily in popularity since then, dropping to number 12 on the 2020 list of most popular names. Jennifer, an English version of the Welsh Guinevere, reigned as the top female name from 1970 through 1984. The name, which means “fair complexion,” has seen an even larger decline than Michael, tumbling to number 434 last year.

Of the 10 most popular male names in 1970, only James and William (a German relative of Liam) remain on the 10 most popular baby names. None of the 10 favorite female names of 1970 is on the top 10 list for 2020.

Liam and Olivia are relative newcomers to the top 10 baby names. Liam, an Irish name meaning “strong-willed warrior and protector,” first hit number 1 in 2017 and has stayed there since. In 1970, Liam wasn't in the top 100 names. (It made its first appearance in the larger SSA database of 1,000 most popular names, at 939, in 1967.) Olivia, which means “olive tree” and is the feminine version of Oliver, ranked number 539 in 1970, and became number 1 in 2019.

Top 10 baby names of 2020

Rank Male name Female name
1 Liam Olivia
2 Noah Emma
3 Oliver Ava
4 Elijah Charlotte
5 William Sophia
6 James Amelia
7 Benjamin Isabella
8 Lucas Mia
9 Henry Evelyn
10 Alexander Harper

Top 10 baby names of 1970

Rank Male name Female name
1 Michael Jennifer
2 David Lisa
3 James Kimberly
4 John Michelle
5 Robert Amy
6 Christopher Angela
7 William Melissa
8 Brian Tammy
9 Mark Mary
10 Richard Tracy

Top of the pops

Some names become popular because of popular music. Brandy, for example, ranked number 804 in the SSA database in 1967. In 1972, the band Looking Glass hit the charts with Brandy (You're A Fine Girl). The name Brandy jumped to 82 on the SSA's list in 1973, finally peaking at 37 in 1978. Brandy was 887 in 2007 before it dropped off the top 1,000 entirely.

Other popular culture can have an influence. The movie Rocky was released in November 1976. The name Rocky rose from 383 that year to 328 in 1977 and peaked at 302 in 1979. The name was most popular in 1955, ranking 240, up from 954 in 1942. One possible explanation: Boxer Rocky Marciano, the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated, held the world heavyweight boxing championship from 1952 to 1956.

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Yet other names reflect the age. In a 2003 paper by Matthew W. Hahn and R. Alexander Bentley, the authors argue that in periods of greater conformity, such as the 1950s, you get fewer unusual names. In the 1950s, the most popular female baby names were Mary, Linda and Patricia; the most popular male names were James, Michael and John. Even in periods of raging nonconformity, such as the 1960s, however, parents typically name their children conservatively. Fawn ranked 876 in 1966 and was most popular in 1973. Arlo, oddly, wasn't on the list of most popular names from 1944 through 2010, but it's been gaining in popularity ever since. (It's 220 in 2020.)

Still other names may have fallen out of use because they seem old-fashioned. Homer, for example, was a reasonably popular name in the early 20th century, ranking 80th in the SSA's database in 1900. Its last appearance on the SSA's list of popular names was in 1983, well before the popular television show, The Simpsons, probably doomed the name for decades to come.

The government agency's baby names database contains names dating back to 1880. SSA began compiling its lists of the most popular baby names in 1997.

John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.