The economy: cautious optimism; After Affluence, by John Oliver Wilson, New York: Harper & Row. $9.95

"After Affluence" deals with the postwar American middle-class dream and its fading during the tumultuous 1970s. The author asks whether this dream can be restored, and his tentative conclusion is that, in modified form, the legitimate aspirations of the mass of Americans can still be met if we get on with the job.

John Wilson, former assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity and now director of economics-policy research at the Bank of America, identifies the dream of postwar Americans as aspiration for a college education, a job with upward mobility, a home in the suburbs, and a secure retirement.

This has been eroded by inflation, the energy crisis, the changeover to a two-worker family, and perhaps most of all by the startling effects of demographic change (the postwar baby bulge represents a kind of obstacle for today's college graduates looking for meaningful jobs).

In surveying the middle-class dream, Wilson finds that most of the goals of Americans have corresponded to real human needs. He argues, though, that Americans have typically found their self-esteem in the approval of peer groups and not enough through developing their individual sense of worth. Quoting several modern psychologists on the need for growth, he emphasizes that most of us find genuine satisfaction, if we do find it, in our work. Thus the importance of matching the individual need for growth with overall societal, economic needs.

Wilson's remedies for the eroding middle- class dream are not particularly novel. On the economic side, they include many of the Reagan economic ideas. Through redirecting more of the economy to investment instead of consumption, one may hope the nation will find a way to raise its productivity again and thus reduce inflation.

On the social side, he argues for a liberal education which will prepare workers for the many job changes they may face in 40 years of work. He also thinks the presence of more women in the work force will lead to a merging of professional and personal goals.

If there is a challenge presented by the book, however, it is not in the recital of the narrowing of our prospects in just 30 years. It is more that human experience is allm transitory. We must not mistake either success or failure as the norm, since each generation reacts to the particular problems facing it.

The high rate of growth of the postwar years may have been a phenomenon not to be repeated in many decades. We shall get the furthest, however, toward reaching the traditional American dreams, or goals, if we correctly identify the specific challenges facing our economy and society and recognize the changed social terrain from which we set out to do battle.

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