When older Americans look at the generation that is coming of age in the '80s, a weird, almost incomprehensible montage appears.

There are familiar images, bits and scraps from the last three decades. But they are all somehow out of place.

This generation's teen-agers include kids who wear "preppy" clothes and look neat and respectable. But a high school drug dealer in suburban Los Angeles turns away seventh graders who want to buy marijuana. "Come back in a couple of years when you're grown up," he tells them.

College campuses are quiet. It could be the '50s all over again. But the Radcliffe Lesbian Association is active in undergraduate politics at Harvard.

These kids, it is said, are so much more obedient than the rebels of the '60s. Yet one out of four 18-year-olds has not bothered to register for the draft as required by law.

They are enormously patriotic. But many of them are deeply cynical about public life, casually describing politicians as crooks. We might call them the OPEC Generation. Having grown up with the economic scares of the '70s--inflation, high interest rates and the oil cartel--they worry about grades, jobs and careers. Yet one of their musical anthems is Pink Floyd's defiant "we don't need no education; we don't need no thought control."

On closer examination, their views on work, money and status seem fundamentally different from the ones their parents grew up with. Underneath the quest for A's and college acceptances are vestiges of the Me Decade. They want more than just a place in the rat race, more than material rewards and security. In the language of the TV advertising with which they grew up, they want it all. Interesting work, enough time to enjoy friends and family and private pursuits. Personal fulfillment.

These young people seem more complicated than the goal-oriented achievers of the '50s, especially in their attitudes toward authority. Ask any parent, teacher or boss.

But who are they, these children becoming adults in the '80s? Perhaps the first and fundamental thing to understand about them is that, like previous generations of American youth, they are "new" in the sense that the great national events of the past, even the recent past, do not deeply affect their perspective. As a still-young nation, Americans like to feel that they are "reinventing" themselves in each generation. These kids feel that way, too. They feel different.

The Vietnam war is the most direct evidence of this. For a decade it stirred American youth, stimulated great political activity at home, produced heroism and great sacrifice in war.

Today among the young it is only a blurred memory of a strange interlude. To soldiers at Fort Hood, Tex., the Vietnam war was a "United Nations peacekeeping action" or "just a political war."

"I don't think we lost," one soldier says. Another young GI explains what he thinks happened: "We were told to dig in and stay in one place. We never advanced. If we had advanced, we would have probably had Vietnam today."

The lessons of a great national trauma seem lost on those young Americans. On the other hand, Lisa Chinn, the 15-year-old daughter of a Prince George's County policeman and a schoolteacher, sees a positive legacy from the confusion of the '60s.

Those times, as Lisa sees it, "contained the roots of good and bad things . . . . There were drugs and teen-age sex, but also school busing, which opened up things culturally for so many kids."

"The country had to go through it," Lisa goes on. "As a a country and a people we all grew. It was necessary. America goes through these stages, sort of like an adolescent who doesn't know how to find himself, who has to go through these heartbreaks and things."

What is one to make of such contradictory signals? Perhaps the easiest explanation is that, if the adults of the nation have not resolved old conflicts or fully absorbed dramatic changes in the economy or moral standards, it is not surprising that their growing children reflect the same confusions. Indeed, what the children of the '80s seem to tell us most directly is how much about our national future we have not successfully sorted out.

In one sense, I have been gathering material for this series of articles about the '80s generation for 21 years--since the first of my two children was born in a U.S. Army hospital in Germany. Like many other parents who lived through the '60s and '70s, I experienced the changes taking place in society directly and sometimes painfully--through the impact they had on my own family.

My particular experiences--divorce, sudden responsibilities of single parenthood, ordeals with teen-age drug use and a belated search for a better relationship with my children--were shared by thousands of us who had our roots in the '50s.

But as a reporter, I also became interested in what my children and others were saying about American society and the changes occurring in it. The more I listened, the more I came to respect their insights. And the more convinced I became that American institutions--families, schools and communities, in particular--are failing the young.

This series is an attempt to set down some of this--in effect, to report youth's side of the "youth problem" story. It is based on more than 40 hours of taped interviews with a random sample of some 120 young people, most of them between 16 and 21. I talked to dropouts, runaways, punk musicians, born-again Christians, soldiers, job corpsmen, the "best and the brightest" from Ivy League colleges.

I toured the Los Angeles community of Watts with a black gang leader, spent a night in a fraternity house in Ames, Iowa, and joined a theater workshop where teen-agers improvise scenes and dances to "get in touch" with their creative powers. I also consulted mountains of studies and talked to the experts.

Cosmic generalizations about an extraordinarily diverse group of young people are, of course, nearly always too simple. Kids think grand thoughts and humble ones, just like their parents. Kaye Weddington, 17, a student at the Duke Ellington High School for the Arts in the District, put it simply: "One thing scares me more than nuclear war . . . it's being totally alone."

Still, after months of reporting, the montage of conflicting images, the contradictory values and ambitions of so many different young people, was gradually distilled to a single thought, a complaint that I heard expressed obliquely and directly in dozens of different ways and which deserves at least a respectful consideration from adults.

It is that the "crisis" of American youth is not the well-publicized one involving crime, drugs, school discipline, apathy and declining test scores. The "crisis" may instead center on the failure of the nation's institutions, and especially its families, schools and communities, to focus clearly on these "new" Americans, to understand what young people want and need to reach a mature place as adult citizens and to connect with them effectively.

This subject of youth and its "needs" has lost fashion in recent years but it was discussed endlessly, often indulgently, a decade ago. To understand how these young people of the '80s feel, one might think of the youth rebellion of the '60s like a family argument, played on a national scale.

Tempers flared, accusations and demands were made--then it subsided. But the issues raised in the arguments were not fully resolved. And so underneath the surface, much of the anger still simmers, repressed and ready to explode again.

That metaphor may offend many adults, many parents who look upon today's young people as extraordinarily lucky--free to do as they please, comforted by tangible luxuries, pampered by too many opportunities. One could say: Never in the history of the United States has society given a generation so much and asked so little in return. And many young people would respond: that is part of the problem.

Today, without much of a hassle, a young person reaching maturity can smoke marijuana, get an abortion, buy birth-control pills, flick on any amount of electronic gadgetry and (if white and middle class) get a part-time job with ease. Young women take for granted opportunities undreamed of by their mothers. And since 1973, young men have been spared the requirement of military service.

Yet if caring and concern is measured by what is asked as well as by what is given, society has not served this generation of Americans as generously as it seems. What's missing? Skeptical adults would be surprised by the answer from scores of young people: the lack of challenging responsibilities against which they can shape their character, their values and their commitment to society. A sense of purpose, of inspiration, of fruitful connections, not only to parents but also to other elements of the larger society.

An Israeli girl who attended an American high school this year described the differences between her country and this one:

"Teen-agers in Israel are a hundred percent more serious than here," she said. "They think a lot more about their futures and their families. You're not as likely to smell marijuana in the public toilets."

In America, when members of this generation describe their lives, they often settle upon a forlorn word. They are "bored."

If that outrages the parents who "gave them everything," no one is more disturbed by disordered lives than the kids themselves. Opinion polls sampling teen-age viewpoints consistently show that large percentages of high school students are more concerned than adults about disorderly classrooms, poor school spirit, not enough homework and tension in families.

For all the freedoms that today's young people have compared with earlier decades, they do not feel they have more control over their own lives. On the contrary. Between 1969 and 1979, a liberating period for youth, the percentage of high school seniors who felt students had "little or no influence" on how their schools are run actually increased, from 21 percent to almost 34 percent, according to a national poll by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

"I can't tell you how many conferences I've been to in the last 15 years when they've been discussing what to do about our young and there was never any young represented," says Bob Alexander, founder of The Living Stage here. "It was only the adults who sat around saying 'education for the '70s . . . education for the '80s . . . . ' I say, 'Where are the young people who are going to be educated? Why don't we ask them what they want?' "

In return, it seems, their sense of accountability to parents, schools and employers seems weak and undeveloped. Cheating is so routine among these kids that it is almost taken for granted (55 percent of the kids in one national survey said they do it).

The traditional models of family and community in which youth had a well-defined place, including responsibilities for work, have also become strained by divorce, single parents, working mothers, suburban life styles that provide comfort but also isolation.

When pollster George Gallup this year asked the public to grade schools and parents in their communities on a scale of A through Fail, the schools came out better than families, but neither fared well. Only 29 percent gave parents an "A" or a "B," compared with 36 percent for the schools. And 27 percent graded parents "D" or "Fail," compared with only 20 percent for the schools.

Television, as everyone knows, has become the "common school" of the nation, breaking the information monopoly once held by schools and parents. Kids graduating from high school next June will have spent 10 percent of their lives watching television, and only 8 percent in classrooms. Young people today reach puberty two years earlier than they did in 1900, and they spend many more years in the "holding pattern" of education and financial dependence.

This has made growing up very different from what it once was.

"We have created what might be called 'compulsory youth'--a substantial time between dependence and independence, a twilight zone of uncertainty and ambiguity of status," concluded the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education in a report issued in 1979.

During this prolonged period in limbo, the study went on, "youths are left largely to the guidance, companionship and mercy of their peers and the electronic media."

Since 1973 there have been at least five major reports on youth in addition to one by Carnegie. All of them have called for fundamental changes in the institutional arrangements serving youth. But it is hard to identify changes that have come about as a result of those studies.

"If you're a teen-ager, you're bad news in this country," said Chris Buddner, a 19-year-old pre-law student at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. "If young people do something bad, it makes the front page. If a bunch of them do something good, it's in the last column by the funnies."

Parental conceptions often seem to be based on superficial evidence. The common, almost universal comment from this generation of kids is this: "Our parents don't know anything about our lives."

Parents worry about the rise in teen-age sex--one out of two white teen-agers aged 15 to 19 has had sex, compared with one of four in 1970, according to sociologists Melvin Zelnik and John F. Kantner.

Parents worry about drugs and violence. Statistics show 90 percent of high school seniors do not use drugs frequently; 94 percent do not drink alcohol every day; 97 percent have not used a knife or gun to get something from somebody else; 97 percent have never struck a teacher, and 85 percent of teen-age girls never get pregnant. Only a tiny handful have taken a shot at a president or a parent.

Drugs are an example of the perception problem. Parents who grew up before the drug culture worry incessantly about teen-age drug use. They are correct in believing that drug use is widespread. Experimentation with drugs has now become a teen-age rite of passage. But the majority of teen-agers pass through and survive. Those who abuse drugs are a minority--perhaps a minority that is no larger than the share of the adult population that abuses alcohol and pills.

When kids turn the tables and look at adults, they often express concern about the "parent problem." They see hypocrisy, dishonesty, instability, alcoholism, divorce, secrecy about sex and family finances, confused values and a lack of trust in their kids. This is, of course, an old complaint, but in today's context it is a key to understanding broader problems in families and schools.

When Daniel L. Duke of the Stanford University School of Education studied a high school in a middle-class suburb of San Francisco in 1977, he concluded that there was an "adult discipline problem"--inconsistent enforcement of rules, insensitivity, lack of classroom management skills and lack of data.

Duke found that half the faculty of 150 had "little patience with any but the most diligent students." Many of the teachers "fail ed to display any willingness to help students overcome problems," thereby "contributing to student feelings of isolation, resentment, frustration and low self-esteem."

While it is easy to make glib comparisons with earlier decades of young people--the so-called Silent Generation of the '50s when I was growing up or the rebellion of the '60s--all of those inevitably break down in complications.

The '50s era of comformity included the same preoccupation with grades and careers, but it seems an innocent time compared with today. The rebellious expressions of the '60s are still reflected in today's young people, but seem muted and even despairing by comparison.

I watched television for the first time when I was 13 and saw my first marijuana joint when I was 21. Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" circulated through the schoolboy underground. Cocaine was unknown.

Last summer, I met kids growing up in coal towns in eastern Appalachia who said they had no trouble buying cocaine.

Jeff Moenich is at Cleveland's Cuyahoga Community College studying to be a nurse. A few friends have kidded him about choosing a traditional woman's career, but not many. "Times they are a-changing," he says. "Men are doing women's jobs and vice versa.

"Me have kids?" says a female classmate. "No way. I just want to work. No kids for sure. I want to have fun with my husband."

"We're a lot more aware of our anxieties and fears--of sex, joy, self-doubt, fear, loneliness, what we want to sustain our life with. It's what causes us to reach for a cult or college--or for nothing at all," says a 20-year-old college student from Virginia.

But these young people share this with the '50s: patriotism. Coming of age after the savage national self-criticism of Vietnam and Watergate, the '80s kids have rediscovered national pride and a longing for a "constructive" era. Their strongest memory of a foreign disaster is of one where America was cast as the victim, not the aggressor: the hostage-taking in Iran.

Marcia Kimpton, 18, an Illinoisan from Wilmette who attends the University of Indiana, is an admirer of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Last spring she went to hear campus speakers criticize U.S. policy in El Salvador. But she is also comfortable with her patriotism.

"America as a loser? I feel totally the opposite . . . . I don't think we're losers because we're always helping out everybody. As much as Vietnam was a mistake, our intentions were good. We're always willing to give money to this country, and that, and helping out Israel and El Salvador. The first country to come and help another country would be America. We take in so many immigrants and even let them go on welfare. America as a loser? I can't even believe that anyone would say that."

A 21-year-old from Santa Monica, Calif., says: "We're a land of nice people and we get stepped on and taken advantage of . . . . I don't believe we should be like Germany, where they're not free and everybody has to think the same."

A former official of the Central Intelligence Agency who gives speeches on colleges campuses detects a shift in attitude. "They were throwing tomatoes a couple of years ago," he said. "Now they want to know how they can join up!"

Capt. Louis Gelling Jr. of Fort Hood, Tex., has noticed that military uniforms are back in style. "There was a time when you didn't wear the uniform. Now when I wear it on home leave they say, 'Hey, you in the Army?' And it's the kids!"

But for this generation, a better feeling about the country has not translated into a renewed trust in the institutions, or faith in government and politicians. The legacy of Watergate remains.

"Because you've got money you can buy your jail sentence," says a teen-age girl in Cleveland. "Because you're poor you do your full term. I see how Mr. Nixon gets out of his impeachment for doing wrong. But if you do wrong in your community, would you get out of it? No!"

Because the '80s kids are less hostile to the military than a decade ago does not mean they are in the mood to lend a hand to new American foreign adventures. When the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research surveyed high school seniors in 1980, it found that three out of four of the college bound, and slightly more of the noncollege group, agreed that "the only good reason for the U.S. to go to war is to defend against an attack on our own country." And a large majority also disagreed that "there may be times when the U.S. should go to war to protect the rights of other countries."

The "Soviet threat" does not play well.

"Nobody worries about the Russians. They're as afraid of us as we are of them," says a male high school student from Maryland.

If this generation is more politically conservative than the generation of the '60s, it is still overwhelmingly liberal on many social issues.

The 1.7 million full-time freshmen who entered college in 1980 were strongly liberal on most social issues, according to a survey by the University of California at Los Angeles and the American Council on Education. They felt the government was not doing enough to control pollution (81 percent), to protect consumers (74 percent) or to discourage energy consumption (83 percent). Sixty-one percent were in favor of national health insurance and a slim majority supported legal abortions.

But if that is so, why is this generation politically passive about the things it believes in? Many of the battles, of course, have been won. But liberals and conservatives would both agree that many still remain. In Western Europe, young people have been galvanized into opposition to the nuclear weapons buildup, but a business major from Fairfield College in Connecticut says: "At my school nobody's worried about the system. They're worried about their grade-point average."

"The professors are more radical than their students," says sociology professor Raymond Calluori of Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. "When you say things in class that you wish you had heard when you were in school it upsets them. They want to hear the good things. They want to believe that Reagonomics will work. They'll take down anything and spit it back to me even though they don't believe it. The reason is they don't believe in anything. They don't realize that kids got their heads cracked back then--that they put their bodies on the line in the war and in the demonstrations. They know they can do this or that, but they don't know why they got their freedom, and they don't feel they should help other people who don't have these same freedoms."

That perception is shared by others who, like Calluori, were part of the political movements of the '60s. But like other perceptions of this generation, it leaves out part of the story, the positive though vague aspirations that the "new" Americans feel for their country and themselves.

Geoffrey Ringstad of Syracuse University--son of a stockbroker, musician, fan of the Grateful Dead, member of a college band called the Glass Camel--admires what kids achieved in the '60s. But now he thinks the country needs a "constructive period."

He reads Tom Robbins on the decay of America, on the 20th century ending in a mess. He reads Ken Kesey on broken glass littering the streets of cities, and feels inspired to do something good for the country. Exactly what, he's not sure.

It would involve "not letting things go back to the way they were," but also "trying to understand other people."

Dr. Ronald Siegel, a Los Angeles psychopharmacologist who is an expert on the drug scene, believes that declining use of marijuana and more consumption of stimulants and cocaine is a positive sign. "People are waking up and getting back into society," said Siegel who thinks the choice of drugs denotes "a time of productivity and reentry into the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism."

But what of a parallel trend to inreased use of hallucinogenics such as LSD and psilocybin? If people are coming down to earth, why are they also drugging themselves into a world of fantasy?

Ralph W. Larkin, a New York City social science consultant and author of papers and books on the youth culture, perceives a hidden despair in the children of the '80s. The country is "still producing a similar young person to that of the '60s and '70s. They're not that different," he said.

But Larkin adds that "the further you get from the '60s, the harder it is for kids to envision any alternatives. They are still plagued by the senselessness of much of what they do. Going to school seems senseless. They see themselves as engaging in meaningless activity which leads to more meaningless activity. But since this is 1981, there's no alternative to it, no dissident youth culture. So they compromise. They participate without commitment."

In the absence of causes that unify young people, given their shrinking numbers in relation to the adult population, power has begun to shift back to the institutions that made concessions to the youthful rebels of the '60s. Draft registration has been reinstated, dress codes are coming back, the legal drinking age has been raised in some states, academic electives are being scuttled and new "core curriculums" (in which course requirements are determined by college administrators) are being introduced.

These shifts fit in with the more restrictive political climate of the times, and with an economic situation that plainly frightens many members of the OPEC Generation. Many students have come to agree with John Harms, of Loyola University in New Orleans:

"You have to learn to play the game. You have to learn what the rules are."

That does not necessarily mean obedience to the rules, however. A high school principal in Maine finds students are more concerned about "getting caught" than they were a few years ago. They are less openly defiant, but they still break the rules--only much more secretly, he says.

"I'm a closet smoker--I like 'shrooms," confides a 15-year-old California girl whose favorite drug of choice, unbeknown to her parents, is hallucinogenic mushrooms, or psilocybin.

The secrecy, the wariness about adult intentions, the sense of living in a time of transition to something unknown--all these things make for a confused picture of the '80s kids.

In Los Angeles, a harbinger of future trends, the popular new fad is called "New Romantic," an import from England. Its devotees dress up in costumes and frequent the Club Lingerie in Hollywood. It does not seem to be much more than a fashion show, a costume party, in which everyone takes on an identity other than their own.

But the New Romantics are angrily reviled by the punks who hang out at the Cathay de Paris or congregate at the Okie Dog on Santa Monica Boulevard, for "selling out" to commercial fashion.

Elsewhere, practically every high school in the country seems to have it own small contingent of long-haired hippies who look identical to the "flower children" of a decade and a half ago--except that "hippy" has become a negative word and the new hippies seem ignorant of the political role their predecessors played in the peace movement.

To further confuse the picture, many of today's teen-agers are drawn to the music of an earlier era in youth culture--to the Rolling Stones, the Doors or the Grateful Dead--rather than to any new music of their own.

These seemingly unconnected cultural strands seem indecipherable to the adult society. Yet to the kids who embrace them they make sense. In fact, there is a common thread: the search of young Americans for something of their own.

When David Chun of Santa Monica puts on his New Romantic costume of black pants, smock, gold tie-scarf, and greases his hair with "dippidy-doo" to make it stand straight up, he feels he finally "stands out in the crowd."

He feels "noticed," something he missed while he was graduating seventh in his class last June from Palisades High School. There is a little of that same feeling in millions of America's young people. They wish to count for something, to be noticed.