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Rising education, confidence, income herald `new America' -- and new politics

A ``new America'' -- richer, more educated, and more confident -- has begun to emerge in recent years, a number of analysts say. This evolution in American society is expected to bring about significant, lasting changes in the political and economic future of the United States. Signs of the new era can be seen on all sides. Experts point to greater numbers of women in the workplace, higher education levels, growing use of robots and computers, an expanding population of young professionals (``Yuppies''), the decline of labor unions, the rise of the two-income family, and vigorous US corporate response to foreign competition. Altogether, such trends are creating a much different America as we approach the 21st century.

Each of these developments is acting as a catalyst to alter the way Americans live, the way they think about themselves, the way they make a living. The changes are also -- slowly, steadily -- changing the way Americans vote.

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Politicians in Washington view these developments with a mixture of awe and dread. Long-range planners in both parties say the general trends seem to favor the Republican Party. But who can be sure?

Big labor unions, which are often closely allied with the Democratic Party, are scrambling to adjust to the new reality. A report from the AFL-CIO notes: ``The United States . . . is undergoing a scientific, technological, economic revolution every bit as significant as the industrial revolution of the 19th Century.''

Horace Busby, a veteran political analyst and publisher of ``The Busby Papers,'' calls the changes that are under way ``the new American revolution.'' A few days ago, he warned national Democratic Party leaders at a private conference at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., that: ``At this point in its history, the Democratic Party has come under what amounts to almost geologic pressure from many forces -- impersonal, unblinking forces which are implacably working to reshape the party's world.''

What are these forces? And why are they, at least for the present, working against the Democrats?

Certainly one of the most important is the rising level of education. Year after year, in growing numbers, new high school and college graduates march forth from their schools. As recently as 1960, only about 40 percent of all American adults had a high school education. Today that has surged to more than 70 percent, and it's still rising.

The crowd of college graduates is also expanding. Further, we are now getting something relatively new on a wide scale: college graduates who are the children of college graduates. Many of these young American adults have enjoyed both the benefits of a college education and the profound advantages of growing up in families where books and learning were encouraged.

In part because of higher education levels, Americans today display changing attitudes about themselves and their lives. Analysts say that Americans today are more independent, self-confident, and self-reliant than ever before. They are skeptical of authority, including big government, big labor, big business. Even the widespread emphasis on physical fitness and good nutrition plays a part in this shift toward self-reliance and self-esteem.

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No single explanation, such as education, can totally account for the changes now under way, however. There is, analysts say, a confluence of events that makes the outlook for the coming decades extremely bright.

One factor is simply demographic. Janet L. Norwood, commissioner of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, notes that during the next decade, America will have a growing population in its ``prime'' working years. More and more workers will be in the 25-to-54 age bracket, while fewer will be in their teens and early 20s. This will expand the supply of highly trained workers and should reduce the need for various kinds of expensive government assistance for hard-to-employ teen-agers.

Analysts say there are also several other key developments, including:

More two-income families. The changing role of women has not only altered the workplace, but it has sharply boosted many family incomes. For the first time, millions of families have moved up to middle and upper-middle income levels.

Changing technology. The rapid shift from blue-collar America to white-collar America continues. During the 1970s, about 90 percent of all new jobs were created in the white-collar service sector. By 1990, 3 jobs out of every 4 in the country will be in service industries, such as banking and insurance.

Foreign competition. The surging economies of the Far East, and the growing economic importance of Mexico and Canada, are forcing US companies to slim down and toughen up. It's also forcing a transformation in the way Americans think about their jobs. Middle America is worried about factory closings, rising imports, and layoffs. This is hurting labor organizers. A study by the AFL-CIO found, for example, that 54 percent of all nonunion workers in the US believe that ``unions increase the risk that companies will go out of business.''

Declining partisanship. Old-fashioned, horn-blowing political partisanship is ``out.'' Arbitration and quiet problem-solving are ``in.'' Americans are moving major decisions away from government and political parties and into the private sector.

A number of authorities who have studied these changes in America are excited by them. What they see ahead is a new, more dynamic America, one that should be more prosperous, more healthy, more independent, better educated, and better able to cope with whatever the future might bring.

Some of these changes actually began as early as the 1950s, but they are picking up momentum as the 20th century draws to a close.

The picture is less sanguine for many politicians, however -- especially Democrats.

Various political analysts note that while history was creating Democrats almost automatically through the 1930s and 1940s, that process began to ebb in the '50s. History is now a strong tide in the opposite direction.

Rising incomes and educational levels are primarily associated with GOP voters, not Democratic ones. The move away from blue-collar jobs (heavily unionized) to white-collar (seldom unionized) is also significant. The backbone of the Democratic Party for years has been the labor movement, which has been undergoing a steady decline.

Peter Hart, a top Democratic pollster, is unwilling to concede the future to the Republicans, but he admits that the GOP is ``a step ahead'' in appealing to voters in a ``new America.'' The key battleground in the next few years, according to Mr. Hart and Richard Wirthlin, President Reagan's pollster, will be younger voters. There are 110 million Americans aged 18 to 44, and only 70 million aged 45 and over. Americans politics, says Hart, may be poised in 1988 to ``jump a generation'' and put a younger breed of politician into the White House.

One statistic, Hart concedes, tells much about what's happening to US politics. In 1965, 38 percent of American families had both husband and wife working. Today it's 53 percent. These newly affluent, two-income couples tend to be antitax and antigovernment spending.

And that's the Reagan (Republican) theme. -- 30 --

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