Attempts to explain rising rates of suicide among young men in Britain and elsewhere during the 1980's have identified the characteristics of those people who kill themselves. Little, however, is known about the impact that changes in social context may have had on changing rates of suicide during this time. Changes in aggregate levels of unemployment, poverty, marriage and the proportion of adults living alone during the 1980s were derived from data collected in the UK National Census of 1981 and 1991. In an ecological analysis these changes were compared with changes in age-adjusted rates of suicide in men aged 15 to 44, in 364 county districts of England between the beginning and end of the 1980s. Areas experiencing the lowest increase in rates of suicide were those that experienced the smallest rise in the proportion of people living alone, the greatest increase in unemployment and highest levels of social deprivation. In addition to investigating the effect that characteristics of people have in determining the risk of suicide in individuals who kill themselves, further attention needs to be paid to the impact that social context may have on mediating these risks.