FOR many years New England's economy had to face with typical Yankee stoicism the indignities of has-been status - the decline of its textile, shipping industries, the OPEC oil shocks, and the Sunbelt exodus. But no more.
Largely riding the high-tech industry boom, the region now prospers. Unemployment in Massachusetts and Connecticut is heading into the low 4 percent range, half the national average. A decade ago Massachusetts hosted six Fortune 500 companies; now more than twice that number, 15, have their headquarters in the Bay State.
The lesson in all this is that too much store should never be set in even the major economic problems of the moment. Straight-line graphs that would predict unending trouble often cannot anticipate changes in circumstances or people's reactions to events.
New England is benefiting from the shift to a high-tech environment generally in the United States business structure - in skills, materials, and equipment - and not just from high-tech sales directly. The defense buildup under Presidents Reagan and Carter, a corollary of the high-tech trade, is also helping the region. At least a 5 percent real growth in defense spending is expected to survive a congressional trim of Reagan's defense plans next week, with much of the subcontract work headed for New England. Also, the region's many educational institutions have added a remarkable entrepreneurial thrust. These pluses represent longer-term, not cyclical, trends for the region, says Robert Gough, a Data Resources Inc. economist.
Vermont and New Hampshire, especially in their southern tiers, are enjoying the secondary effects of the boom, in leisure and business activities. In the larger cities, new hotels, restaurants, and shopping malls show the region's comeback.
Now it is asked whether New England might become an importer of idled workers from the Middle West. But in another decade will we perhaps be describing how that region, too, made an unexpected comeback?