Bob is a generic name for a generic, non-descript guy. Bob is likely to be male, white, older than 35 and we know almost nothing else about him. Selecting him from a crowd is a challenge.
But we’ve known Bob for a long time. He’s been in commercials for nearly every company as an example of an everyman we’re all supposed to identify with or project upon. For the last 20 years Bob has been synonymous with everyone and no one in particular. Bob even became a meme himself in 20092, signaling peak saturation.
But Bob is fading. I’ve been seeing him less and less over the last handful of years. In its place, another familiar name has started to rise.
This phenomenon gradually came to my attention as friends, snickering, would send me article after article at an increasing frequency. “You don’t know me Jeff”3, “why do women keep sleeping with Jeff”4, “Jeff has a lot of nukes”5. There are countless other examples6. Odds are, you’ve seen them too.
Over the months, I’ve come to realize something chilling: Jeff is the new Bob.
I’m not the only one who has noticed, especially among those of us named Jeff. And to be clear, I’m not upset by it at all. I think it’s pretty funny. But it also raised my curiosity as to what could be driving my humble first name to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
We’ve seen this with traditionally female names as well. Just ask the Karens8 and Felicias9 of the world. Though with those two examples, there seem to be points of cultural reference (movies, TV, etc) that started the memification of those names. Emily is another extremely common name that gets used a generic reference too.
In the case of Jeff – and before him, Bob – I haven’t found such an origin story. It seems to have just arisen randomly from the hivemind. This is the name we’re using to drag the everyman until we get bored with it.
I’ve searched for anywhere this phenomenon might be described, why names themselves become memes and what constitutes a generic call-out name? Is it the name’s commoness or popularity?
There are some data to answer that question. It comes from the Social Security Adminstration and U.S. Census Bureau, and snapshots Minnesota as a microcosm, which has proven to be broadly indicitive of national trends. And the stats show Jeffrey has not become a more common name by any means, and in fact has crashed significantly10 in popularity since its peak in the late 1960s.
So it’s not a matter of the name’s popularity. In fact, when looking at Robert, it’s possible that both Jeff and Bob are being picked on because they’re increasingly unpopular names. The number of males born and named Robert each year shows a similar downward rollercoaster trendline that peaked in the 1930s11. Basically, what’s happened to Jeff happened to Bob a generation earlier.
Note: looking up the shortened versions of the names in question (Robert = Bob, Jeffrey = Jeff), doesn’t produce nearly as many datapoints.
So my imperfect, unscientific theorum based on data and personal experience (and not much else), is this: Jeff is the new Bob because it has vague resonance with young adults as the name of someone they could know, but don’t.
Here’s an explanation: both corporate marketing and meme sharing are targeted at and among Millennials, who comprise the coveted 18-to-35-year-old demographic that advertisers spend their waking moments figuring out how to manipulate into spending their money.
There was a time when that age bracket was comprised of Generation X, who were largely born in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Jeff was a super popular name among GenX guys. Mostly every other Jeff I meet is GenX. When working at the University of Minnesota or Minnesota Daily in college, I was pretty unique in the Jeff category. Working at my real-world job, my workplace is now lousy with Jeffs. I’m the only Millennial I’ve encountered whose parents named him Jeffrey. I know there are more, but we’re comparatively rare and becoming rarer. So for Millennials, there are a lot of Jeffs out there – just few-to-none who they personally know. To today’s young adults, it seems like a really common name for someone else. You know, those other people that various things happen to that never actually happen to you.
Among GenX, when they were the golden young adult demographic, Bob would have been that guy, someone among their parents’ or grandparents’ generation whom didn’t usually exist in their immediate friend circle. There were a lot of Bobs, but the hip generation of the moment didn’t hang out with them so much.
This is maybe why Bob, and now Jeff, have become fair game for memification. It’s common enough in general to resonate but not personally specific enough among young adults to be offensive.
What this idea doesn’t answer is why Bob? Why Jeff? Yes, they were common names at one point, but why not other common names? I can’t throw a rock without hitting a Boomer guy named some variation of James. Does it hit too close to home as someone’s dad? Why isn’t Katie or Ashley being picked on?
So my conclusion could be completely wrong, but it’s what I’ve sussed out so far. I’m interested to hear other thoughts for sure, and to see if Olivia and Henry12 someday become the Bobs and Jeffs for the next generation.