THERE IS a profound failure in our western societies: their inability to provide sufficient rewarding work for their young people.

One has thought of that often before in specific instances: youths in their ghettos who roam the streets like marauders, or the hooliganism of young people after a soccer match in England. from drugs to terrorism, even to the dismal satisfactions of indiscriminate sex, these people have no real work to do. But it was the front cover of the current issue of The Economist which made me connect these separate examples.

Down the side of its cover are the bold words: "The Playing Fields of Ulster." The play in those words -- echoing the famous remark of the Duke of Wellington, "The Battle of Waterloo was won in the playing fields of Eton" -- is intricate and subtle. But the impact is in the picture. It shows a mere stripling, a lad of perhaps 16 years: The woolen mask over his face might be made fo a rugby scarf, but in his hand is not a ball, but two sticks of explosive.

It was the sheer familiarity of the picture which hit me. Our newspapers and television screens are rarely without it, from some country in the world, First World or Second World or Third World. Young, slim, alert, vital young people, throwing explosives, or even just bricks, and one day perhaps a homemade atom bomb. It is all very well to blame the young. But what work do we give them to do?

When I grew up, the "troubles" in India were attributed to the fact that the British had educated far too many Indians, for whom there was not employment. Insofar as that was true -- and there was a truth in it -- the problem is now here in our societies. It is in the ghettos of America, in the slums of Britain, and it is in every band of young militants, scouring the continent of Europe, who have hand grenades in their hands. Our societies are not giving young people work which is satisfying.

And it is no less in the drugs and the sex, and in the pounding din of their music, all of which are meant to blot out the world. There is nothing else to do: Well, then, let's roam the streets, roam the bars, roam with whatever sex comes along; and if you have some nitroglycerin to throw, all the better, at least then your society will know that you exist; sit up and take notice of you.

Here are our "wonderful" capitalist societies, and they cannot even create work for their children. There are even some conservatives -- Irving Kristol foremost among them -- who question the moral vacancy of our western economies. Oh, they are very good, as he says, at preaching some of the values that matter -- prudence and thrift, for example, but when he then adds "work," one sits up and wants to ask him: "What work?" What work are we giving the young to do?

One does not mean only the poor; one means also the middle class and the fully educated. It is still a strange comment to have to make, as I did on another occasion, that one gets used to the fact that one's bartender may be a PhD.

As has often been pointed out before, it is very strange to preach the work ethic and then support a system which does not provide employment. But it is not really a political point that one is trying to make. This almost worldwide unemployment of the young -- the result of technology and whatever else -- is the major moral challenge at the end of this century.

There is in fact as much unemployment, in a different way, in Reston as there is in Anacostia. From suburb to slum, from East to West, young people are idled. Not idle -- otherwise they would not have the energy to pull the trigger of a machine gun -- but idled. What is there for them to do which makes them feel part of their societies? Needed; wanted; paid; employed? In short, their days filled.

If you have already groused about your boss, after all, you don't have to throw a bomb at someone else. Work has an intrinsic value beyond its own importance. We choose our wives and husbands; we choose our lovers and mistresses; we choose our friends and acquaintances; we even choose our children, to some extent, we even choose our children, to some extent, although they are rarely what we hoped for. Among all these commanding relationships in our lives, we do not choose those whom we must work with from day to day. There we have to deal with what we have not chosen.

From fights with the boss to office gossip, here is the outside world, and we have to deal with it from 9 to 5. It is something of which I am very aware as a free-lance. Here am I stuck all day with a typewriter. There's not much to talk about in the evening! Other people can say that the boss was awful, or that the secretary was scatterbrained. But all that I have to tell is that one more key of the typewriter is not working. People don't find that very interesting.

This is one reason why a receptionist like Ruby McGowan, at a magazine for which I write, is built into my life with verve. I do not know how long she has been at that office -- I gave her a retirement party in January, she's not back at her desk as brisk as ever -- but at least I have her to talk about in the evening.

Work means that to people. To have to deal with people one has not chosen: Is that not how we all know our societies? Deprive people of real work, and where do they belong, except to themselves in their private lives?

I once read a marvelous description by a sociologist of how construction workers at high altitudes put a new member of their gang to the test. Is sounded cruel. They whiplash him with their words. But if you are going to work on a slender beam at 100 feet above ground, your life depending on someone else with whom you are working, do you not put him to the test even with an abuse near to savagery? If he cannot take it, if he loses his head, he should not be up there.

Most of our jobs do not have that danger. If I make a mistake, my editors may or may not catch it -- some reader always will! -- but no one dies as a result; one falls flat on one's face but not from 100 feet. Yet the same meaning of work is there: One depends on people whom one has not chosen. That is society: people you do not choose. And if there is no work for you, to what society do you feel that you belong?

You are unneeded: That is what your society is telling you. So you throw a bomb, or sink yourself into drugs. If one's ever been in a steel works when the white-hot molten liquid is pouring into the gulleys of sand, then you see that one does not worry if one's workmate slept with one's wife the night before, as long as he pours the stuff right. There used to be great "B" movies about that, usually with Lloyd Nolan as the forman when an oil well gushed, the enemies in private life working as a team on a job. Take away that work, and to what does one belong?

For as I looked at the picture of that slim young man on The Economist's cover, I thought that to be a thug in the IRA is at least belonging to something. There is the distorted feeling of loyalty. As Harold Macmillan once told me, "Loyalty is knowing that the person on your left and the person on your right will not let you down." And that is the tightness which work builds into a society; and if it is not there, then people will seek the loyalty in a gang of militants or terrorists. There, at least, they feel needed; by unknown people.

We should be sick to death of people, many now in high positions, who preach about the virtues of work, and do not provide the opportunity for it. There are some scary people now in charge, who prate of loyalty and have never considered what it is; and of indigence, without ever stopping to think of its source. As far as I can see, if we do not stop it, we are headed on a disastrous path. Our societies will less and less provide work to the young; the young will more and more take to the streets, and then all the engines of repression will be brought into play.

It is of such that revolutions are made. And in dark moments I feel that revolution is building. Conservatives? These are not conservatives. If they were conservatives, they would provide work. The ethic would then look after itself.