Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman puts it in a nutshell: Our world is changing at warp speed, and it is affecting everything from how we live, to how we work and how we learn.

Even "the face of work is changing," she says. By the year 2050, one out of every two U.S. workers will be a person of color. Among the challenges we face as we head into the 21st century and an era of unprecedented globalization is how to manage this diversity. "There is real opportunity in this diverse work force," she says. "We have the ability to speak many languages. We know virtually every culture."

The department released a report yesterday that looked at the trends and challenges for work into the next century. "Futureworks" is intended to provoke dialogue among employers, unions, politicians and advocates so that we can do some planning for the spectacular demographic changes in store for us.

The population in the United States is expected to increase 50 percent by 2050, with immigration accounting for almost two-thirds of this growth. Minority groups will make up nearly half the population. The population of older Americans is expected to double. More women will be working, and technological breakthroughs, such as larger monitors and voice recognition software, will make it possible for increasing numbers of people with disabilities to work. As employers hire from a highly diversified work pool, they create opportunities for economic growth, but these circumstances also can, and have, led to discrimination, as we have seen over the past 30 years with women and minorities.

"Futureworks" anticipates continued prosperity, thanks to technology, with rising standards of living. During the Clinton administration, 19 million new jobs have been created, 1 million of them in the high-tech sector. Real wages in that sector increased by 19 percent since 1990, compared with a 5 percent increase for the private sector as a whole. While some Americans are prospering, others are not: the gap between the earnings of the top 10 percent of the work force, which averages $1,200 a week, and the bottom 10 percent, which averages only $275, has increased in the past two decades.

Knowledge and skills, and continuous upgrading of these, are keys to success in the coming era. The 20 highest-paying jobs require a college degree, and throughout the economy jobs requiring college degrees are growing twice as rapidly as others. The financial gap between those with college degrees and those with high school diplomas is growing: College graduates made 38 percent more in 1979 and they are paid 71 percent more now.

One shocking figure in "Futureworks" is that more than 20 percent of today's adults read at or below the fifth-grade level -- which leaves them at the starting gate. It's a level of illiteracy that is simply unforgivable in a country as advanced and prosperous as ours.

An American Management Association survey of mid-size and larger businesses in 1996 found that 19 percent of applicants taking employer-administered tests lacked the math and reading skills for the jobs they were seeking. That percentage jumped to almost 36 percent in 1998. "We don't have a worker shortage," Herman says, "but we do have a skills shortage. We've got to do a better job of matching workers with those job skills."

And that means investing in "lifelong learning," she says. Instead of promoting opportunities for this, the current tax bill and budget cuts favored by Congress "will pull the rug out from under workers. Ten years ahead the impact of these tax schemes will be very wide and very deep: 350,000 dislocated workers will be denied training; of 118 job-training centers we will lose 62; more than 300,000 young people would lose summer job opportunities.

"We have on average about 2 million jobs that result in dislocation in this dynamic economy," Herman said. "The good news is that in this economy we are creating new and better jobs. The bad news is we've got to do a better job of training those workers who have been laid off." One initiative proposed by President Clinton in his fiscal 2000 budget is the Universal Reemployment Initiative, which would guarantee retraining to workers laid off through no fault of their own.

The stress on families is going to increase as the percentage involved in eldercare doubles from 20 percent in 1996 to 40 percent in 2004. "There will be no such thing as `women's issues,' " is the breezy prediction in "Futureworks. "Men and women will share equally in the challenges of managing family and work time."

Herman sees signs that this elusive goal may finally be within reach. More men are signing up for benefits such as parental leave for newborns. "There's increasing evidence that many employers know we have to think of family friendly policies not as a fringe benefit but as good ideas for workers and that it is good for business. It is increasingly seen as a bottom line issue. You are seeing collective-bargaining agreements negotiate for extensive child-care services. That is new."

Women began surging into the work force three decades ago, with virtually no social supports such as child care, and very little political support for such niceties as equal pay.

The last big demographic shift in the work force occurred with no planning. Quite the opposite: It met formidable political, social and economic resistance, and the result has been three decades of exhausting, costly, and frustrating struggle for many women and their families. How much easier it would have been for families if the country's institutions had recognized the trend and responded rapidly by putting the necessary supports in place. We can learn from this mistake, which boiled down to a national denial of the fact that women were staging a revolution. We have plenty of warning now about the changes ahead. What we need to do is think about them, plan for them, and make the most of them that we can.