YOU SEE THEM MORE and more often in the unemployment lines: neatly dressed, leather carrying-case under arm, reading Bloom County or The New Republic or Tom Shales. Impeccable, well-groomed and getting desperate.

Their situation is a far cry from the glory days of the '60s and '70s when, as young idealists, they were drawn to Washington by the Kennedys and the war on poverty.

They found jobs on the Hill, in the executive branch, or in the burgeoning "third government" -- the non-profit organizations that sprang up to broker and spend the multimillions for urban planning, social services and community organizing that began to flow from the federal mother lode.

They came, and they stayed, moving up in the hierarchies, making ever-higher salaries -- $30,000, $40,000, $50,000. People like Bob Hill, who left New Haven for Washington in the 1970s and rose up in the ranks overseeing federal grant programs for the National League of Cities; like Carla Cohen, who came from Philadelphia and worked her way up to a high-paying slot in HUD helping cities figure out how to spend urban block grants, or like Erwin Mills, who was a social worker in Chicago when he got the call to help John Kennedy solve the juvenile delinquency problem, and who stayed on through OEO, Head Start, Model Cities and a plush job in an educational consultancy.

And the bottom dropped out. The social service fabric was RIFed apart by the Reagan administration. And thousands who had become a powerful new class of government-service expeditors found themselves out of work.

These elite unemployed are not unique to Washington. You see them in New York, Los Angeles and other big cities. But Washington is where they proliferated.

Many were casualties of the change in administration and the loss of the Senate by the Democrats. Others were RIFed from federal Jobs. (Among 10,000 employes directly fired nationally, some 40 percent were in upper income brackets). Ordinarily, people like these could land in transition jobs with consulting firms or government-contract social agencies which had multiplied like guppies during the past two decades.

Some managed to do that. But the Reagan cutbacks in social programs and the economic slump shrank those alternatives unmercifully.

A case in point is Bob Hill.

He came to Washington in 1971 after running a neighborhood employment center in New Haven. He joined the National League of Cities, one of about 50 state and local government associations in Washington, many increasingly dependent on federal contracts.

Hill began as head of a program for Vietnam veterans and rose to be director of human services overseeing the League's federal grant programs, which involved helping to train, inform and update local officials charged with carrying out federal projects such as CETA and health care.

He had a staff of 22 and a salary of $47,500.

Then, in 1981, the federal government killed all its grants to the League of Cities, wiping out $4 million in projects for the handicapped, job training, health care. This accounted for more than half the League of Cities' budget. It was forced to lay off 85 of its 135 employes, including Robert L. Hill.

It was devastating. "I knew we were in for a change with Reagan," he says, "but I had no idea the profession of human services where I spent 15 years of my life would be so affected." Living on severance pay, unemployment and his wife's small salary, Hill set out to find a comparable job in his field. He has been searching in vain for six months.

"First I tried the private sector. I had a couple of acquaintances high up in the corporate world. They came up with nothing. I tried the foundations. That didn't pan out. Every time I heard about a job, it was $7 to $10 thousand below what I was making. All of a sudden the upper 40s is a high salary. I'll take a cut, but after 15 years I'm not ready yet to give in beyond $40,000."

That time may be approaching. Hill has run through his savings. He has two children at the University of Maryland. Unemployment benefits amount to less than a third of his old salary.

In Washington, where worth is measured by "what you do," the trauma of unemployment for upper-middle-class professionals goes beyond economics. "It tears at your self-dignity," says Hill. "It makes you wonder if what you worked at all these years is a lie."

To unemployed steelworkers, to families living in automobiles, the predicament of people like Bob Hill might not inspire sympathy. Yet, it is a significant and painful phenomenon for a city like Washington, whose major industry is government and which for years lived under the illusion that high-level public-sector jobs were insulated from this sort of thing.

Because the phenomenon is new, because people like Bob Hill have at least temporary resources and because admitting one is unemployed is not a great strategem for apper-level professionals, the elite jobless have not generated much attention. Many refuse to have their names associated with it. Unemployment statistics do not break out igures for the upper-echelon jobless in the oublic sector. But they are out there.

One measure is the deluge of applications whenever a decent job opportunity surfaces. Examples: When an organization called Volunteer: The National Center for Citizen Involvement, based in Virginia, advertised for an executive vice president (salary around $35,000), more than 500 people responded. Most of the applicants were professionals who had worked in non-profit organizations.

Word gets around even without advertising, as the National Catholic Conference found out when it began a quiet search for someone to oversee grants to community organizations. More than 100 resumes arrived within days. "We got some surprising applicants," said Fr. Marvin Mottet, director of he Conference's Campaign for Human Development. "There was someone who had been with the White House, someone from a national political party and two people who have run their own consulting firms."

Yes, they are there. You hear about them from employment counselors in hard-hit government agencies who have horror stories to tell (the GS-15 forced to become a secretary). You can talk to commercial job agencies.

And, you can find them at a score of self-help job clubs that sprang up in the Washington area to help people RIFed from government and other related agencies.

One of the job clubs, called Workseekers, concentrates in northwest Washington and Montgomery County, probably the largest repository of upper middle-class unemployed.

Workseekers members meet weekly in each others' homes over coffee and cake, on plush sofar under lithographs and posters. They include a former assistant to the assistant secretary of HUD who helped administer block grants (salary, $45,000); a former assistant executive director of a public-interest association ($65,000); a former staff director of a congressional subcommittee (over $40,000); a former transportation expert in the Department of Energy ($42,000).

These professionals are involuntarily unemployed for the first time. They have been out of work for from four months to a year and a half. (Others have passed through Workseekers, found work and moved on.) They are moderate liberals, average age 45, dedicated to public service, mostly Democrats, products of the Kennedy-Johnson eras. They trade tips on jobs, on contacts, on resume-writing; they watch newspaper ads, they confront, comfort, encourage and coax; they coach each other on interview technique. Most significantly, they draw reassurance from their mutual predicament.

On this day, they are talking about a problem affecting nearly all of them: they are planners, facilitators, liaison people, brilliant at what they needed to be when the demand was for generalists. But -- the present buyer's market is for specialists.

Listen to a dialogue about a job somebody did not get:

Carla Cohen: It should be possible for energetic, intelligent and enthusiastic people to be able to learn how to give grants, especially people who've had experience, as many of us have, in managing grants. It infuriates me that all they're interested in is someone who has had private foundation experience.

Erwin Mills (not his real name): They don't believe it's transferrable.

Carla Cohen: That is just outrageous. A bunch of lawyers who don't know anything about administering anything deciding we are not capable of running a foundation grants program because we have not run a foundation grants program.

Barbara Beelar: We are all coming up against someone who says, "I want somebody who has all these skills," and you say, "My God, no one in the world has that collection of skills."

Judy Frieder: There are no jobs for competent generalists.

Erwin Mills: Look, as the market tightens, people look for certain skills. It's understandable.

Carla Cohen: But, when an association wants to hire someone who watches over Washington for the states, it seems to me the things you need to know at the state level can be learned in a matter of months. We're not being judged on ability, we're competing blind for jobs that we don't have a lot of influence over. We're being judged by very rigid standards....

Carla Cohen is the founder and spark plug of Workseekers. The skills issue is one she has learned about from bitter experience.

She has been working in public planning for 25 years, first as a community planner in Washington and Philadelphia, graduating to a Hill job where she managed hearings on city problems and produced several publications, then to a political appointment in the Carter administration helping a HUD assistant secretary target housing block grants to poor neighborhoods. She was making $45,000.

With Carter out and Reagan in, Cohen knew she'd have to relocate. She assumed she had earned the right to land on her feet.

"There was no doubt in my mind," she says. "I anticipated I would be a consultant with a practice dealing with neighborhood groups and city governments. I had about 10 different firms or people I had seen, all of whom said they wanted to use my services. I guess I was really devastated when one by one they disappeared in a cloud of smoke. No responses, people wouldn't answer phone calls. Then I began to get embarrassed about calling. I didn't want to be rejected like that."

Her husband, David, was making enough to support their family, so money was not the issue. It was pride and inactivity, and, at times, a feeling that somehow she was to blame.

"I began thinking about friends of mine who were also unemployed, people like me who were beginning to get more and more dejected. I thought it would be good to have a group where everybody could get together, talk about their job search and share their misery."

Thus, Workseekers began in February 1982, drawing on friends in similar situations on the dinner-and-cocktails social circuit in greater Northwest. By May, there were 20 members. About one-third have found jobs of varying satisfaction, some quite good, others temporary fixes.

Marcia Feldman got her job as communications director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Counsel partly through contacts developed in Workseekers. She had been public relations director of the air traffic controllers' union, PATCO, which self-destructed after the 1981 strike. Feldman knew Cohen and joined Workseekers largely to avoid the loneliness of being unemployed after 20 years.

"The hardest part is the sense of embarrassment," she recails. "You're not supposed to be home during the day, running car pools, etc. It was helpful to see others in the same situation, because you begin to think it's you, that you're not good enough. And here were these people with these wonderful resumes, also having problems. For someone who's never been in the job market before, it's encouraging when people like these look at your resume and say; 'Hey, that's terrific.'"

There may not be a future for social policy professionals, not in the old sense. Even among some Democrats -- the so-called neoliberals -- the pendulum has swung to concerns of high technology and economic management. To the degree that there is commitment to the old anti-poverty, social justice ideals, it has bubbled down to maintenance of basic services.

Another ex-Workseeker is Terry Landor (name changed to protect Landor's new career thrust), a blunt, no-nonsense, type who believes that social service managers must read the trends realistically and retrain for jobs in the growth sector.

Landor, a high-paid social services careerist who was swept out in an economy wave, coldly examined public sector opportunities, decided the time was not now, and took aim at the world of marketing.

Landor took a low-level sales job to hold bed and board together and to maintain health benefits, then landed a job selling communications systems -- at a salary sharply below previous career standards. In three months, Landor has received a raise and expanded responsibilities.

"I took a good hard look at the society and the economy and concluded that opportunities in the public sector are quickly shrinking. The whole mood of the country is shifting from public staff jobs to line jobs in growth industries -- computers, telecommunications, marketing and sales -- things that most people in the public sector have not had anything to do with."

For many careerists in public service, however, the shift to private enterprise is distasteful.

"It's not ideology," says Carla Cohen, "it's where you feel comfortable, where you think you can be most effective. I feel a need to work with citizen concerns, to help the process where ideas are turned into policies. It's not easy to find that in the private sector."

Barbara Beelar, whose career encompasses a half-dozen jobs helping the disenfranchised, puts an ideological spin on this argument:

"I have grown up with, and have been able to do work where I felt I was pulling together professional and political values. I was shaped by JFK. I went into the Peace Corps. I have actively chosen not to work for profit. Now, the public interest seems to have to do with greed and bombers and tax breaks for big business. What comes out of that is people saying, 'Maybe I should give up this silly idealism and go work in the private sector.' Either the job market is not working right, or these values we believed in are wrong."

It seems clear that old assumptions about government services are altering permanently. Many of those RIFed have left Washington for jobs elsewhere. But, for the upper-level professional with deep roots here, including an expensive home in a poor housing market, a wife with a good job and kids in school, the decision is a tough one.

Bob Hill has been offered a job in another city, but is reluctant to take it. "I don't want to move. I've become acclimated here," he says. "But I suppose I'll dust myself off and try to find a position at the municipal level. I'll probably end up in the profession, but it's never going to be the same. The growth of human services has been stunted for the next 20 to 30 years. Reagan had pulled things back so fast and hard, that even the liberals are taking a second look.

"I know we've had some failures, but it doesn't warrant this kind of castigation. I still believe in what I did. I still believe Americans want to help each other."