Mike O’Keefe has lived with the name Michael his entire life, but growing up, he never answered to his first name, unless he was in trouble with his mom. “I was never Mike, just O’Keefe,” he tells me. He directly attributes this to the “high volume of Mikes in everyone’s life.” And since his parents named him after Michael Collins, a soldier and politician who fought for Ireland’s independence, the moniker O’Keefe still clearly communicated his Irish heritage. Now 32, O’Keefe admits, “I wasn’t Mike until grad school, so like two years ago.” While he’s always known a number of Michaels, these days he can guess almost any Mike’s age: “They’re always at least 28.”
That’s certainly the case for 33-year-old Mikey Nau — named after his Uncle Michael — who had a similar experience to O’Keefe as a kid. To get around their lack of originality, Nau’s parents have called him Mikey since he was a baby. It pretty much stuck because so many of his peers had dibs on Mike or Michael. “I still can’t escape it. No one, and I mean no one, wants to call me Michael or Mike, just Mikey or Mikey Nau,” he says, sadly.
If you’ve ever tried to call out to a Mike in your life, only to be ignored as he assumes you meant someone else, or if, say, you’re named Michael yourself, you probably know where O’Keefe and Mikey are coming from. Thanks to a generation of Baby Boomers who didn’t have the internet to check baby-naming trends, Michael may be the most statistically unoriginal name of all time. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), Michael has been the most popular name among boys for 44 out of the last 100 years. (The only other name to come close is Mary for girls, ranking number one for 35 out of those 100 years.)
“Michael was the first boy’s name to get hugely popular that moved beyond the standard John, James and William pack,” Pamela Redmon, CEO of the parenting site Nameberry, explains. It rose to the top of the list after World War II, when new parents wanted to shake off the Great Depression “and take on new names that would become associated with the Baby Boom.” Then, the popularity of celebrities like Michael Jackson, Michael J. Fox, Michael Douglas, Michael Bolton and Michael Jordan kept Mikes on top until the late 1990s.
In fact, the name Michael was so popular, that it inspired Michael Shackleford, an actuary for the Social Security Administration, to invent the SSA’s baby name popularity database in 1997 — mostly because he was sick of how many Michaels there were. Shackleford’s job had nothing to do with baby names — he was supposed to be estimating the effects hypothetical changes to Social Security law would have on trust funds. However, he was expecting his first child, and “naturally, I was not about to give my child a popular name, but I had no idea what the popular names were any longer,” Shackleford wrote in an essay for Nameberry. “To determine what the most popular names were at the time, I wrote a simple program to sort the Social Security card data first by year of birth, then by gender and then by first name.”
He always sensed that there were too many Michaels in the world, but this was the first time he had the data in his hands, and knew the extent of it. Mikes were everywhere. “It was too good to keep to myself,” Shackleford recalls.
Once he made his data publicly available, it took off. This was during a time when the internet was becoming more popular, and it may have quietly provoked some unintentional backlash against the name Michael. Either way, ever since, there have been many more public pleas for people to stop naming their children Michael and Mike, from CollegeHumor sketches to rants on mommy blogs. Their efforts seemed to have worked, albeit slowly at first. From 1999 to 2008, the name Michael was demoted to second place, then it clung to third place for another two years, before vanishing from the top five entirely — losing out to the Jacobs, Noahs and Liams of the future. “I think it will take another generation or two for Michael to come back into style,” Redmon says.
Mikey agrees. “I think people are bored,” he says, adding that younger generations of parents may be overcorrecting and trying too hard to be unique. “Parents these days love to name their kids what they should be naming their dogs or their lawn mowers.”
Beyond simply reaching full Mike capacity, O’Keefe offers another theory as to what dethroned his name: “There were so many Mikes that almost every straight woman in the country was wronged by a Mike at some point — and all those women were just like, ‘No more!’”
That said, O’Keefe doesn’t necessarily think younger generations of parents are becoming any more original, noting that all of his nieces and their friends have “old lady names.” To that end, perhaps the rise and fall of Michael isn’t so much about the name. Maybe it’s merely an example of how none of us are as unique as we like to think we are.