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In Names, Parental Age Is Everything

February 26, 2020 laurawattenberg 11 Comments

In Names, Parental Age Is Everything

February 26, 2020 LauraWattenberg 11 Comments
Image contrasting Charlotte & Alexander with Harper & Hunter

I’ve been banging the drum for many years about the importance of maternal age, in baby name style and far beyond. Most of my name conclusions had to be inferred from community-wide differences in age and naming. Direct data about the ages of parents choosing particular names simply wasn’t available. But thanks to the the UK Office of National Statistics, we now have our first direct glimpse.

The ONS has reported top-100 lists for boys and girls, broken down into four categories of maternal age. If you just glance at the top of their four age-based lists, the most popular handful of names, you might get an impression of consensus. Names like Oliver, Olivia and Amelia rank highly across all ages, which is how they became the top names in the country overall. But you don’t have to scan down far to find dramatic differences.

I’ve calculated the names that skew the oldest and youngest in England, as a ratio of the ranks among mothers aged 35+ vs. mothers under 25. Take a look at the two resulting baby name lists. How do they strike you?


My guess is that any native English speaker will find them dramatically different. The overarching difference that leaps out is that the “Older” names are more traditional. That comes across subjectively in choices like Edith and Martha vs. Paisley and Nevaeh, and it’s easily verified statistically. For instance, half of the Older names ranked among the top 100 in England back in 1904. Among the Younger names only a single name, Nellie, made the 1904 list.

The traditional impression is reinforced by the greater formality of the Older list, which includes few nicknames and no cute diminutives. Meanwhile a third of the Younger list is composed of diminutives like Vinnie and Tommy. (Close watchers of the British royal family will doubtless note that Archie appears on the Younger list, George and Charlotte on the Older.)

The deeper you look, the further apart the two sets of names seem. The Younger names are much heavier on surname crossovers, hyphenations and neologisms. Every single boy’s name on the Younger list is exactly two syllables, while the Older boys’ list is a mix of 1, 2, 3 and 4 syllable names.

Interestingly, the Older list is far more international in style. Names like Amelie, Margot, Charlotte, Chloe and Sophie give the girls’ list a French flavor, and the boys’ list is studded with multilinguistic favorites. For instance, Alexander, Felix and Maximilian are also 3 of the top 6 names in Austria. The Younger names are more specifically English, in both the linguistic and national senses of the word. Names like Alfie and Ava-Rose are seldom heard anywhere else. In fact, by some measures the Older mothers’ choices look more like parents in New Zealand, or even Belgium, than like younger mums in their own land.

Some of these differences are specific to British name style, but the overall gulf is global. It’s more than just a different fashion sense. It’s a different worldview, a different sense of what a name should be, even a different sense of how a name positions a child in relation to the past and present, near and far.

Maternal age isn’t a random variable. It’s closely linked to education and income. Having a baby at age 18 makes it vastly more difficult to pursue higher education and a professional career, and conversely, being on the track to become a doctor or lawyer gives you a powerful incentive to delay starting a family. As the UK stats show, those different life trajectories are encoded forever in parents’ choices of names for their children.


Namerology founder and "Baby Name Wizard" author Laura Wattenberg is a globally recognized name expert, known for her scientific approach to understanding name trends and culture.

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  • February 27, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    Fingers crossed that the US releases data like these! I suspect the results would be similar, but I’d love to have that confirmed.

  • TheOtherHungarian
    TheOtherHungarian February 27, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    This is why I’ve always said that Renesmee is actually a perfect name: it perfectly reflects the naming habits of 18-year-old mothers.

  • A Silver Spork February 27, 2020 at 7:25 pm

    I want to know if the father’s age is relevant at all. 18 year old mom and 100-something year old dad, did they have “Paisley vs Dorothy” arguments?

    • lucubratrix March 18, 2020 at 10:30 am

      That was my first question, too: does this work differently for paternal vs maternal age, and what do big mismatches say?

  • Penguinmom March 2, 2020 at 4:16 am

    “Maternal age isn’t a random variable. It’s closely linked to education and income. Having a baby at age 18 makes it vastly more difficult to pursue higher education and a professional career, and conversely, being on the track to become a doctor or lawyer gives you a powerful incentive to delay starting a family. As the UK stats show, those different life trajectories are encoded forever in parents’ choices of names for their children.”

    This makes me wonder how young parents decide to name their children as they continue to have more children as they get older – whether they stick with the “young mother” naming styles they started with, or if their naming styles evolve as they age. I’ve seen one instance of the former, but I don’t personally know many other large families outside of the Orthodox Jewish community.

    Speaking of which, one factor I’ve seen affect naming styles is religion – most of the large families I know are in a particular branch of Orthodox Judaism, where names are largely picked from either family names or the same list of traditional names of famous rabbis and their families, regardless of age of the parents.

    I remember a previous article mentioning states with high Catholic populations having fewer androgynous names. I wonder what other patterns there are with religious naming.

  • Julia March 2, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    I actually shuddered when I saw Nevaeh on the list. I can’t believe that name made its way across the pond!
    I am surprised to see that Noah skews so young; I think of it as a traditional name. But I suppose it does fit the Old Testament and rain drop naming trends.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Nicwoo March 2, 2020 at 11:46 pm

    I think there’s the economic piece and the outlook, but I was surprised this newest batch of info’s seeming influence as American. (!!) Usually it’s the other way around-? I work at a school mostly white, west coast, and other than a small handful like Archie and Reggie those are all passable and known here for sure. I wonder how much media plays into things- young moms are also attended to as consumers and the deluge of shows or movies streaming day or night could place Americanisms in the forefront for those too, like never before, right? Just another thought to add to this spot on one for age. I know you’ve written about news media names getting a baby listing for better or for worse and younger people are more influenced in general…

  • nedibes
    nedibes March 3, 2020 at 4:30 am

    A lot of this is clearly socio-economic-driven (e.g. it’s not surprising that the mothers who put off childbearing might have more opportunities to travel abroad, and might therefore be more likely to choose more international names). But I wonder how much of it is also just generational? A forty-year-old first-time-mother is a full generation older than a twenty-year-old first-time-mother, so it wouldn’t be surprising if their tastes in names were almost as different from one another as from their own actual mothers.

    Just spot-checking the top names on the respective girls lists, it looks like more of the names on the “older mums” list are dropping in popularity, whereas the ones on the younger list are more likely to be rising in popularity (with the occasional reverse or “stable” name on each list). Some of the names that look “classic” on the older list were actually pretty trendy twenty years ago–Charlotte and Emily were both top-five names in the UK in 2000, with a slow slide down since then, whereas Harper and Hallie both only recently entered the top-100.

    I guess what I’m wondering is, how much of this difference can be explained by persistent differences between any mother at age twenty vs age forty, and how much can be explained by the moving target of generational influences? Is a forty-year-old mother naming a baby today more like a forty-year-old mother twenty years ago in her naming choices, or more like her classmates who named babies twenty years ago?

    (Anecdotally, in my family, my father is more than twenty years younger than his oldest sister, so his own mother went from one side of this divide to the other. But I have no idea whether her taste in names changed, because his older siblings took over the naming when he came along ;-).)

    • LauraWattenberg
      LauraWattenberg March 3, 2020 at 5:06 am

      @nedibes that is a FABULOUS question, and the answer turns out to be interesting! I just took an informal look at where the “oldest” names rank overall in England today vs. 20 years ago. Some of them do seem to be holdovers from what was hottest then, including Jack, Emily, Megan, Joshua and Jessica. But others are much more popular NOW–and it’s those newly popular names that really give the “oldest” list its notable old-fashioned/formal/international flavor, e.g. George, Edith, Matilda, Felix, Florence, Edward, Sebastian.

      In other words, it appears that both factors are at work, a generational holdover style (perhaps the result of individual parents holding onto a dream name they cherished from early on) AND a distinctive “older parent” fashion sense. And in a way, the holdover names actually obscure the depth of the stylistic differences between the age groups.

      • nedibes
        nedibes March 3, 2020 at 9:40 pm

        Ooh, that is interesting! I might have thought that the “musty, fusty” revival was led partially by younger parents who are further removed from having a grandparent with that name, but apparently it’s actually the older parents driving that style trend.

  • Megan W. March 18, 2020 at 8:15 pm

    I wonder if older parents are more likely to use a family name? You’ve written before about how we pick the trendiest of grandparent names – it’s not an accident that the Royals picked George and Charlotte, two older parent trendy names, but also family names. Older parents are more likely to have lost a parent or grandparent, and younger parents may still have a little teenage need to distance themselves from their parents.

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