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High-tech promises and pitfalls for dreamers of future prosperity

Dreams Betrayed: Working in the Technological Age, by Carlton C. Rochell with Christina Spellman. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath. 132 pp. with notes and bibliography. $16.95. The betrayed dreams referred to in the title of this book are the promises of those who say that high-technology is the answer to the future prosperity in the United States. The authors agree that the computer and automation have brought many benefits. But they say the human cost of these developments has been high and could increase if current trends continue.

Their argument has two key elements. The first is that high-technology has been a major factor in the elimination of many high-paying blue-collar jobs and is cutting into middle-level white-collar work. The ultimate result could be a relatively small number of high-paid jobs at the top, a sharp decline in middle management positions, and a very large number of low-paying jobs at the bottom.

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This trend is already making inroads on the middle class and if it continues, could polarize American society into two classes: the very rich and the very poor. Besides pointing out the importance of a strong middle class to social, economic, and political stability the authors suggest that such stratification would deny the American dream of equal opportunity for upward mobility.

Even people who don't actually lose their jobs are likely to be affected in some way. For example, as jobs are restructured to accommodate computers, job satisfaction and status may decrease. One illustration concerns a secretary who had worked closely with a project team in an architectural firm. When dedicated word processing equipment was introduced, she was moved to the typing pool. Stress is another factor. Computer systems allow employers to monitor much more closely the productivity of individual workers. Knowing this can increase pressure on employees.

The second, and perhaps more provocative issue in this book is the question ``Do Americans have an actual right (as compared to obligation) to work?'' The question stems from interviews and surveys indicating that Americans like to work and want to work.

They also tend to take their identity from their jobs, to feel that working is important to happiness. The authors quote one report stating that more than 70 percent of the respondents said they would prefer to continue working even if they had the means to live comfortably without doing so.

In such a short book - the actual text is a mere 112 pages - it isn't possible to discuss a national righttowork policy in depth or even to examine the social, governmental, and economic implications of such a step. The authors' primary motive is to raise this and other questions so as to promote discussion.

Prospects for positive change are good if local government, industry, unions, and other interested parties work together. The crucial point, the authors say, is trying to anticipate the challenges ahead and adjusting the course accordingly.

Rosalie E. Dunbar is a free-lance book reviewer.