FOR MOST PEOPLE throughout the industrial world, the times continue to be prosperous. But unemployment remains high and appears even to be rising, although the world is in the fourth year of recovery from the last recession. As in the United States, the unemployment rate in Britain moved up a little last month -- in Britain's case, to 13.3 percent of the labor force compared with 7.3 percent here. For the 12 countries of the Common Market, the rate is nearly 12 percent. Even in Japan, where it is still under 3 percent, the trend is slowly upward.

Sometime in the 1970s there was a silent and profound change in the politics of economics. The unemployment rate was no longer the single crucial number that could swing elections. Memories of the bad years in the 1930s and, for the Europeans, the postwar 1940s had faded. A substantial structure of social security and unemployment benefits had been written into law, and the fear of losing a job no longer went so deep. As the pivotal number in election campaigns, unemployment was replaced by inflation. To push inflation down, governments throughout the world have resorted to policies that have left the numbers of people without jobs far above the levels that, until the mid-1970s, were traditional.

Here in the United States, the massive loss of industrial jobs is chiefly attributed -- correctly -- to the excessively high exchange rate of the dollar. But over a longer period there is a pattern of decline in manufacturing employment that is common to all of the advanced industrial countries, even Japan. Productivity has typically risen much faster in manufacturing than in most other sectors of these economies. The consequence has been a slow shift of labor from manufacturing and farming into the service industries and public employment. But the service industries have not been growing fast enough to accommodate this redistribution.

A high general level of unemployment is not the only measure of the social damage that results. Another is the length of time that each person remains unemployed, and it has generally been increasing. Still another is the age distribution of unemployment. Americans worry, with good reason, about unemployed youth. But the Europeans have far more to worry about. In the United States, one out of every seven working people under the age of 25 is out of a job. In France it's one out of four, and in Spain nearly half.

Of all the industrial countries, only Japan has cut inflation without letting unemployment rise to levels that, at any time before the last dozen years, would have been considered intolerable. In Europe and North America there have been endless attempts to bring down both together, and none has worked. It is correct to celebrate the return to (comparatively) low inflation. But it would be quite wrong to ignore the costs at which it has been accomplished.