Thursday, July 9, 2009

Generations and attitude towards unisex names

Linking my knowledge on baby name trends and the Strauss & Howe generational cycle, here's my theory on the unisex name issue and how people from different generations perceive it. This is written from the perspective of the parents who are/were naming their children, not the recepients of the names themselves. For the most part a particular generation of kids is fed by parents from the previous two generations (for example the current crop of children being born, what has tentatively been named the Homeland generation, mostly has parents from Generation X and the Millennial generation). Warning: Descriptions of people in the various generations are generalizations; you may or may not fit the general pattern.

If you've been on a baby name forum recently you have probably noticed a group of people who like the idea of using names that are traditionally masculine but have since been co-opted by the girls on the original gender again. From my observations, the ones who support this idea the most are the youngest of the crowd currently doing the baby naming - members of the Millennial generation (those born from about 1982 to sometime in the early to mid point of the 2000s decade). This is why these days when a name becomes hot for both genders it is becoming more likely that it will stay truly unisex (such as Hayden and Riley) rather than become a mostly girl name. Although there are also quite a few Millennials who don't like unisex names, when they don't it's more likely to be for both genders rather than only for boys (as was the case for many Boomers and early Xers).

The predecessors to the Millennials, Generation X (those born from about 1961 to 1981) seem to have a fairly "objective" view on the unisex name issue. For example, in Laura Wattenberg's book The Baby Name Wizard (she is an Xer) she tells about how unisex names tend to become more feminine over time and suggests a few names that may cross over, but doesn't actively promote the trend like Boomer authors Pamela Redmond Satran and Linda Rosenkrantz have (more on that below). From the boy's perspective, she neither recommends using "unisexed" names on boys nor dissuades their use. The early Gen-Xers (like founder Jennifer Moss) often have a similar attitude as the Boomers (on her Q&A page she seems to like names like Hayden and Madison for girls but recommends against names like Shiloh for boys), while the later ones have an attitude reminiscent of the Millennials' but aren't quite as gutsy about "taking back" names (e.g. they might say "I love [insert unisex name] for a boy but I wouldn't want to give a name like that to my own son").

The Boomers (using the S&H dates of 1943-1960 rather than the fertility bulge dates of 1946-1964) tend to be the strongest promoters of the "double standard" of using unisex or even outright masculine names for girls but dissuading the use of the same names for boys. For example, in some of Satran (who has a daughter named Rory) and Rosenkrantz's earlier books they have a whole list of traditionally masculine names that they think would be cool for girls but elsewhere in the book they have a section on why you shouldn't use a name that is likely to also be used for a girl on a boy. Recently they have become more balanced on the issue (probably so as to not scare off the Millennial audience), but even in their newest book Beyond Ava and Aiden there are still signs that they prefer the use of such names for girls (on their list of "Unisex Names" they include names like Connor and Elliot which have very rarely been used on girls but are still seen by the general public as male names) but not "older" unisex names like Kelly and Shannon (which if you asked a member of the general public if they're unisex or not you'd be more likely to get a "yes" response with those than the previously mentioned Connor and Elliot).

Before the Boomers was the Silent Generation (born from about 1925 to 1942). Unlike the Boomers this generation was more open to using unisex names both ways (for example Bruce Lansky, who has written several baby name books, is a Silent). Although they probably had a slight preference for using them on girls (e.g. Lansky's daughter Dana), they weren't as turned away from them on boys as what was the case for Boomers (for instance names like Jody and Kelly were more widely used both ways during the late '50s and '60s when the Silents still made up the lion's share of parents as opposed to later during the '70s when Boomer parents took over and those names became mostly used for girls).

Going back yet another generation to the G.I.s (born c. 1901-1924), they were not a fan of crossovers in general and preferred gender-specific names for both boys and girls. Although a few formerly masculine names like Beverly and Shirley were popular during their peak naming era, they actually crossovered from predominately masculine to predominately feminine during the prime naming period of the two generations that came before them (the Missionary and Lost generations).

In essence the Millennials have formed a "generation gap" in naming attitudes (and attitudes towards acceptable masculine behavior in general, which I'll get to in a later blog post) between them and the Boomers, much like the generation gap with society in general between the G.I.s and the Boomers in the 1960s. Like the Boomers back then who didn't like the way things were in general, today Millennials don't like how females have a wider range of acceptable names (or behavior) than males and are "rebelling" against their elder Boomers in that respect (note that the term "metrosexual" came into the vocabulary of the general public at about the time that the oldest Millennials were coming of age). For the generation in between (in this case of gender issues the Xers, in the case 40 years ago the Silents) they tend to follow their elders at first (albeit sometimes unenthusiastically) but some may "switch positions" when their different-thinking juniors come along. Like a G.I. politician 40 or so years ago who had to adjust how he/she voted in order to not be defeated by young Boomer voters, Boomer authors of baby-name books (like Satran and Rosenkrantz) have to adjust their ideas on name ideas for boys in order to not scare off the young Millennial audience. In both cases the older person might not be enthusiastic about adjusting, but realizes that he/she must in order to win at least some approval from the younger ones.

Here's the post on Satran & Rosenkrantz's Nameberry blog about this subject that inspired me to go ahead and make this post:

For more links on these subjects, look at the bottom of my previous blog post:

1 comment:

  1. Interesting - this rings very true.

    I think that the socioeconomic aspect to unisex names can't be forgotten either, though, despite its influence not being as great as the generational aspect. I attend a private school (in England, which I suppose makes a difference, too) and as the first member of my family to do so, I'm in a better position than others at my school to observe class differences.

    Middle and upper class parents like to choose unusual names, often making flamboyant selections for their sons which would be seen by others as feminine - names such as Florian or Bellamy. The other school of upper and middle class parents, those who stick stoicly to classics such as George and William, would call these parents pretentious, and to an extent some parents do make such choices to mark themselves out as upper class, to show intelligence via literary connotations et cetera.

    Add to this the nicknaming habit of us Brits - it is very rare for me to meet someone who doesn't go almost exclusively by a nickname - and these boys quickly become Flo or Florrie and Bell. Incidentally, I had never come across "Gabe" for Gabriel before visiting Nameberry; every Gabriel I know goes by Gaby. Parents of these boys are roughly half and half Generation Xers and Boomers. While using 'girly' names is different from using unisex names, I think it is similar to those parents now attempting to claim back names which had almost fully transitioned to girls' names, using Beverly and Addison on their sons.

    A large part of the unisex names issue is of course the fact that it became acceptable for girls to have traditionally masculine traits (with the feminist movement) a good while before femininity in men was accepted (I say "was", but I don't believe the transition to acceptable has fully occurred yet), and sensitivity in men valued.

    A small rant related to my last point - I am so sick of reading that parents are choosing such-and-such a boys' name for their daughter because they wanted a 'strong name'. These posts always read like they did so out of feminist motivation, but the whole thing is shockingly contradictory. So Catherine isn't a strong name? Oh no, of course not, I get it - names can't be strong if they're girls' names - girls must pretend to be boys to get on in life! Yeah, real gender equality there.

    Re-reading this I realise that I come off as a complete bra-burner; apologies for my ranting,