There are a lot of ways of predicting the changes in the American work force in the years ahead. But the Children's Defense Fund, a child advocacy group here in Washington, took a generational approach this year. In its continuing crusade to convince Congress and the nation at large to invest more money, time and interest in our No. 1 natural resource -- the children -- the group has projected who the "students and workers of the year 2,000" will be, based on a statistical breakdown of today's 4- and 5-year-olds.

It isn't a pretty picture. Among the telling statistics for those children -- a growing proportion of whom receive the least preparation for a productive adult work life -- that CDF contends could undermine stability of the nation's economy and of individual family finances in the next two decades:

One in four is poor.

One in three is nonwhite or Hispanic, of whom two in five are poor.

One in five is at risk of becoming a teen parent.

One in six has no health insurance.

One in seven is at risk of dropping out of school.

CDF president Marian Wright Edelman believes those figures portend a future workplace of unskilled laborers and increasing unemployment. She calls it a catastrophe in the making. "More than 30 percent of our youths do so badly on skills tests that they would be turned down for enlistment in our armed forces ... ," she says, pointing out that the problem is compounded by a shrinking population of young people in the United States, ages 16 to 24.

"As the number of young workers steadily declines, business and industry will be forced to rely upon workers and potential workers in whom we traditionally have failed to invest," says Edelman.

About one in three of those new workers will be minority employes, she figures. About 15 percent are born into households where no parent is employed. The working parents of another 15 percent earn below-poverty wages. And 25 percent will be supported by welfare at some time prior to adulthood. "To ignore these facts is to jeopardize America's future and undermine the competitiveness and productivity of our economy ... ," she warns.

In fact, financial erosion in the lives of unskilled and undereducated young workers already has worsened dramatically. Another recent CDF analysis found that while the real wages (after-inflation and after-taxes) of all young males, ages 20 to 24, have declined in the past 20 years, the wages of those with poor basic skills and of school dropouts have eroded disproportionately. From 1973 to 1984, the real annual earnings of a male college graduate fell 30 percent. Among the unskilled group, it dropped by 42 percent. In 1973, the male college graduate earned 25 percent more than the school dropout. In 1984, he earned nearly 50 percent more.

"The wage disparities have grown drastically and it affects dropouts and even high-school graduates," says CDF program director Jim Weill. "If you want to make a wage to support a family, you'd better get some college these days."

The solution for the year 2,000? "Enhance the prospects and productivity of a new generation of employes that is disproportionately poor, minority, undereducated and untrained," says Edelman. "If we are serious as a nation about preventing teen-age pregnancy, infant mortality, welfare dependency, unemployment, and bolstering national productivity, we must invest now in upgrading the basic skills of all children."

Planning to Plan? America's financial planners face a dilemma. They're in the business of assisting people at making the most of their finances over the long haul. But, according to a survey conducted this summer for the International Association for Financial Planning (IAFP), those who may need the most help with their finances seem to seek help the least.

The poll, which interviewed 1,014 Americans, indicates that a majority of Americans are insecure about their long-term financial future, two-thirds said they were unsatisfied with their net worth, and about 42 percent said they feared outliving their retirement funds. "One out of two Americans, without regard to income, are confident for the rest of 1987 about being able to meet their bills and having money left over," says IAFP chairman Charles Lefkowitz. But more than half felt future generations will be "worse off."

Eighty percent, however, have never used a planner. Only 13 percent said they currently did. The survey suggests that people who've tasted some financial success ($50,000-plus incomes) are almost twice as likely to seek financial planning help than others.

The top three circumstances under which people who had never used a planner might change their minds: substantial increase in income (95 percent), certainty that the value of a planner would be worth the cost (94 percent), or a large inheritance or lump sum of money (92 percent).

IAFP nonetheless puts the best face on the survey results. Pleased to find that 15 percent of the general public said they "plan to use" a planner someday, it calls the market potential for its 24,000 certified financial planners "vast."