Like the man who made so much money he could do what he really wanted, a whole generation in the industrial world is faced with deciding what is really worth doing. In the process the individual values of many are shifting toward what a University of Michigan analyst calls ''post-materialism.''
This seems a continuation of such trends as voluntary simplicity that play down getting and spending in relation to achieving quality in private life. The post-materialists have been estimated by the Michigan analyst at 10 percent in the United States, 13 percent in West Germany, 21 percent in the Netherlands. In Japan statistics show a marked decline in the percentage of people in their early twenties believing children should be taught that money is the most important thing.
But you don't have to accept the survey figures, says a long-time pollster tracing the values shift. Just look at people's behavior.
Doesn't everyone know somebody or somebody's children who might fit the picture? They get prestigious college degrees and go to woodworking school to learn something that satisfies them. They live beneath their means looking for well-made second-hand items at flea markets instead of flashier mass-produced products. When they go into corporate work, they consider environment and other satisfactions as much as salary; they are more resistant than their predecessors to being moved around at the company's convenience. With them the work ethic flourishes but in new ways.
Ironically, the affluence of their societies has helped to provide choices formerly withheld from people until later in life. Now, instead of the self-made man finally having time to play his cello, many people are trying to arrange their lives to fulfill themselves as they go along.
The pitfalls of this outlook have been illustrated by the ''me generation,'' with self-fulfillment often becoming self-centeredness in contrast with the social commitment of the generation that went before. If post-materialists are to make a contribution to civilization it lies in their shedding the dross of self-indulgence and the devotion to low-cost selfm -satisfaction that can be just another form of materialism.
A more genuine self-fulfillment can be found in the realization that one's own quality of life is enriched by that of others. The American Friends Service Committee has posed such useful questions to consumers as: Do I consider the impact of my consumption pattern on other people and on the earth? Among the findings of last year's Connecticut Mutual Life report on the strong religious commitment in the US public was this item: that much more importance was given to ''going out of your way to help a friend'' than simply ''being with friends.''
Is the current recession reducing the number of the post-materialists? A US Department of Education survey in 1980 found a sharp increase over 1972 in the percentage of high school seniors putting priority on having a lot of money. Then, too, there are the blue-collar and service workers - not to mention the unemployed - struggling to reach a point of material sufficiency, let alone post-materialist options.
But some analysts of the post-materialist trend see it as continuing in the long term despite recession - or even because of it. For in theory there would be more to go around for all if more people lived with simplicity, letting the earth's resources be widely shared.
And one need not be a flat-out post-materialist, with the lax moral standards that sometimes accompany ''self-fulfillment,'' to turn from materialism in one's own way. Several years ago, a survey of Americans found a majority already favoring ''learning to get our pleasures from nonmaterial experiences'' over ''satisfying our needs for more goods and services.''
If the labeled post-materialists are now only minorities, there may still be a little post-materialism in most people. Even as many in the past rejected materialism for less ''modern'' reasons.