"I want a job that will enable me to move up the corporate ladder and maintain the standard of living I enjoy: the nice car, the nice house. The thing to do is conform. It almost seems worthless to try to battle against the system."

That is Lee Geiger, who is taking a year off from Claremont Men's College in California to study business at American University.

And here is Kathryn Myles, an undergraduate at Occidental College in California who interned at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce here last summer:

"I'd love to go abroad or something like that but I question it simply because I don't want a future employer to think, you know, I just played for a year. It's not that we're oblivious to things like the arms race. It's just that I keep telling myself if I keep plugging and put all these things on my resume I'll get a job."

It is almost as if the clock has been turned back to the '50s, when world war and depression were still recent memories, when Americans threw themselves enthusiastically into the pursuit of material well-being.

The resemblance is genuine: grades, SAT scores, college acceptances, degrees and careers are a major preoccupation of young Americans. Enrollment in business schools is booming and 15-year-olds confidently announce plans to become dentists or computer programmers.

But in months of interviews with young people across America, a fundamental difference emerged. It is a conflict of values that defines them and confuses them. While their preoccupation with jobs and material security resembles the conformity of the "silent '50s," today's young people have also absorbed the values of personal fulfillment expressed by the youth rebellion of the 1960s.

When they are asked about their commitment to money and career status, the talk is less of material possessions than of a desire to satisfy personal or emotional needs. In sum, they want both, and they recognize, at least some of them, that this may produce unresolved conflicts in their futures. For a generation that distrusts authority, they are worried that climbing up a promising career ladder may provide the material benefits while it robs them of something else.

"There's a terrific paranoia on our part that we're simply going to be a cog in the wheel -one more engineer, one more lawyer, when what we really want is to re-create some kind of community," says Dan Voll, 20, of Duke University.

Against this conflict, the nation's economic troubles in the turbulent 1970s have instilled nagging fears about the future, even among those growing up in affluence. In a sense, the national economy -or young people's perception of it -is their Vietnam. It organizes their lives and anxieties much the way the war and the political movements did in the '60s. Unenthusiastic scholars remain in classrooms long after their interest has flagged. Others freely admit that credentials, grades and tests come ahead of real learning in their minds.

As so many of them put it, they are "scared." This weakens what might otherwise be a straightforward rebellion against the pressures they feel from parents and teachers to jump through the hoops. Why pursue individual interests, especially ones with no discernible career payoff, if jobs are going to be scarce and job applicants need the right credentials? The result is a kind of sullen tension -a desire to conform versus a desire to be one's self. Many feel caught in the middle.

Jim Duys, an American Univeristy business major who plans to become a commodity broker, is an example of someone who expects much more from his job than money.

"I want to have a pleasant work environment, a lot of contacts in which personal relationships are stressed, the labor is easy, there's a lot of reading, wining and dining and very pleasant work. And the compensation, if you're competent, is very good."

Geoffrey Gormley is a college undergraduate from New Jersey. He is interested in a career in communications and says that "getting up and dreading my job would be the worst thing I can imagine. I want to enjoy it. I think a lof of my friends are money-oriented, but I'm not because I see what it's done to my father."

Mark Curley, 19, is in his second year at The Citadel military academy in Charleston, S.C. His goal is "to have a little money and enjoy life rather than have a lot of pressures -just enough to keep the wolf away from the door. Satisfaction and leisure time would be ahead of money."

"A career is to make you happy -you can't enjoy your job unless you are," says a high school graduate from the Midwest, reversing the old ethic that work and duty to a job came before pleasure.

There's a "more diverse kind of student in college now," says Nancy Edleman of Indiana University in Indiana, Pa. "Before, maybe back in the '50s, the type who went to college had a father who was gung-ho, 'Let's get this degree.' Now it's 'Listen, I want to take a few classes, find out what I want to learn, and if it's not what I want I'll go on to something else.'"

Her friend Marian Myskowski of Tacoma, Wash., wants to "get a better idea of where I fit into the world. I'm more of a laid-back person. I'm not going to get a job in an attorney's office with 200 lawyers. I'd much rather go into a job with a more relaxed, liberal viewpoint."

Fulfillment in the '80s can mean "heading for California and trying life in the fast lane," as it does for a bearded, tattoed youth who worked as a bartender in Edgartown, Mass., last summer.

It can mean "the freedom to teach and have a family because I love kids and I'd love to be living in San Francisco," as it does for a 19-year-old Chicago girl.

But it can also mean work that helps others or is good for society.

This generation has its idealists, but they want to express their idealism differently from the political activists of the '60s. The most idealistic talk about their generation as the "engineers" who will work "constructively" to make the '60s dreams come true.

Eric Thompson, a young Floridian at American University, is studying real estate. He knows his chosen field has a reputation for ruthless deals. But his explanation for entering it is the opposite.

He is inspired by the work of James Rouse, creator of the community of Columbia, Md., and would like to work with him someday in an effort too rebuild America's cities. He talks admiringly of Philadelphia's New Market development.

"I love enormous cities. I hate urban blight," he says with passion.

David Raczenback, also from American University, is majoring in pre-law. His roommate has kidded him about his goal of becoming a public defender representing indigent people in court.

"He asked me what type of law was I interested in -corporate? When I said, 'No, I want to be a defender,' he chided me a little bit and said there was no money in it. But I'm fascinated with the idea of justice -that it can be provided for in a democracy."

A 19-year-old woman from Santa Monica, Calif., wants to be a "drug rehabilitation counselor" because "I've seen a lot of friends go through it, and I feel heavy drugs have gotten out of hand. You see kids who are on angel dust who are completely freaked out. I know that won't make much money, but I want to help people out."

Underlying the resistance to being programmed into an unwanted role is a fear that something precious is being lost in the fastmoving world of big corporations.

Bryan Luedtke, 21, an Iowa State agriculture major who has grown up on a family farm in Chariton, Iowa, fears losing "the closeness of the family."

He is ambitious and has no regrets about pursuing a business career away from the farm. But he wishes he saw his sister and parents more often.

He "can remember how dad would say, 'Pull the weeds out of the bean field.' We'd complain, but you'd see the field on the way to church and think how good it looked. People are on the go so much more, there's not enough time to reflect. I'm sure the next generation won't get together as much. It's something I'm going to miss."

"While the work ethic is far from dead among this generation, it does have its limits," write social science researchers Jerald G. Bachman and Lloyd D. Johnston in Psychology Today.

Despite their anxieties about jobs, the aspirations of these young Americans are more balanced than their expressed worries might suggest. Only 16 percent of college freshmen polled in 1980 by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research rated having lots of money as "extremely important." That compared with a good marriage and family life (79 percent); strong friendships (69 percent); finding purpose and meaning in life (66 percent); finding steady work (65 percent); being successful in work (63 percent), and making a contribution to society (23 percent).

Nowadays college professors and administrators use words and phrases such as "serious," "sober" and "knowledgeable about what they want" in describing young people.

"You've lost a lot of the junk that used to be around," says Herbert E. Streiner, professor of economics at American University's school of business. "The Vietnam thing. The late parties. These kids are well-dressed. As many as 30 percent of them have a definite idea of what they want now."

But some worry that other things have been lost in the current climate besides the junk.

They worry about the preoccupation with grades and career choices, the absence of critical thinking, the heightened sense that the educational process involves competing against other students rather than developing individual qualities that will be useful for a lifetime.

Rick Chessen of the University of Wisconsin speaks sarcastically of the competitive pressures at school these days:

"When I was in third grade, if I got all A's, I'd get $10. I always learned that people who wanted to get to the top law school had to go to the top college. To get to the top college you had to get to the top school -and it works all the way down the line. If you screw up somewhere, that's competition -and it's competition all the way through life."

James S. Tederman, Grinnell College's dean of student affairs, describes undergraduates as "more career-conscious, more grade-conscious -it's just a more academically tense environment."

Grinnell, in Grinnell, Iowa, permits students to drop courses a week before final exams -an option mainly intended for students who are in danger of failing and want to avoid marring otherwise acceptable records. But the concern with grades has become so intense that students with B averages have been dropping out because they feel they need A's, Tederman reports.

Along with the greater concern over grades has come a widespread acceptance of the necessity of cheating.

When Jane Norman and Myron Harris surveyed 160,000 teen-agers for their book, "The Private Life of the American Teen-ager," they came up with a striking finding: By their own admission, 55 percent of those polled said they cheated. Forty-two percent said they felt guilty when they did but still felt it was necessary to cope with the pressures of tests, outside jobs and social life.

The cheating issue suggested to Norman and Harris a "collision of values" between achievement and honesty. Essentially honest kids compromise their values under pressure to succeed in the system.

The danger is that the purpose of education -the broad development of an individual's mind, character and potential -is being twisted in the process.

"You'd be shocked at the number of people who want to go to law school just because they don't know what to do with a college degree," says another student. "I say to them, 'Aren't you interested in people and how they interact -don't you want to be a sociologist?' And they say there's no future in that."

Some students acknowledge that they are being driven in their educations by fear rather than by any desire to grow as individuals.

Lee Geiger, mentioned at the beginning of this article, says his own view of what is important has been influenced by the fact that his father lost his job, his salary and finally the family home in Carmel, Calif., when the freight distributing company he was with lost its main contract with Western Electric.

Geiger's response to this has been to seek out ways to protect himself financially. He has decided that the best way is to become an executive in a big corporation that will not be as vulnerable as his father's small business. He knows that will require "conforming," but he sees that as a necessary price he is willing to pay.

Belinda R. comes from a well-to-do family in New Jersey. There are, she acknowledges, "four cars in the driveway," and her father, an engineer, has a good job. But Belinda, who is studying computer science at college, says that she's "scared of the future."

"My father was born in 1931. He remembers growing up in the Depression. It's very important for [my parents] to have material things, so they can say, 'We're not going hungry.' My grandmother is petrified still. She wants money in the bank and that was handed right down to us. I feel I have to get ahead to be comfortable . . . and it's important for me to be comfortable because that was stressed all my life."

The contrast between Belinda's comfortable circumstances and her financial anxieties raises a question of whether the concerns of maay in this generation may be more imaginary than real. Is this generation creating its own psychosis of scarcity, or is the scarcity of jobs and security a reality? Certainly these young people are growing up in economic conditions that are considerably less favorable than those of the '60s or especially the booming '50s.

"It's a scary year," says Amy Blenkhorn of Cleveland State University. "If my parents make over $30,000 I can't get a [government guaranteed student] loan. But my parents have their money put away for retirement. They've spent their lives paying off second mortgages. All the cuts are scary to me -what does it mean?"

Times are indeed hard at Cleveland State, which students describe as a "blue-collar school." Eighty-five percent of the 20,000 students work more than 20 hours a week and 40 percent more than 40 hours. A night on the town can mean having a meal at the Campus Pizzaria, and listening to Christopher Cross' "Ride on the Wind" on the jukebox.

"We have Tab parties and bring our own potato chips," says Amy, who has a job as a secretary and is looking for a second job "to pay for lunches, transportation and a few evenings out."

A lot of the undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college. But realizing the American dream of upward mobility will be anything but automatic for them.

Amy's generation is coming of age after the major bulge of the postwar baby boom has already moved into the labor market. As the '80s progress, there will be fewer young people competing for jobs at the bottom of career ladders. These demographics underlie suggestions that this new generation has great expectations.

But a number of factors cloud the optimistic predictions.

Amy and her contemporaries are still part of a large generation of young people. The number of Americans between 15 and 24 did not stop growing until 1979, when it reached 42.5 million. Since then it has turned down only slightly, to 42 million. It will not be until the end of the decade that the really dramatic increases in numbers of youth occur. Some of that expected decline in numbers will be offset by a continued influx of legal and illegal immigrants.

At the moment, young people are not faring so well in the labor market.

Workers between 18 and 24 are making more money than in 1967, but when their earnings are adjusted for inflation their incomes have declined slightly, while workers over 24 are taking home 13 percent more money than in 1967 even figuring in inflation.

In other words, young people are earning less in real terms than they were 14 years ago and they are worse off in relation to the rest of the labor force.

Degrees have lost some of their economic payoff, as crowding continues at the bottom rungs of the professional and technical ladders, and college graduates are bumped down into other occupations. Cutbacks in government programs and slack demand for teachers have added to the problem, and economists say the difficulties created for young, college-educated job seekers are likely to continue for a few years.

Yet, for all that uncertainty, the fears of young people are puzzling when they show up so strongly among the privileged middle class.

Probably never before in history has a generation been so well-shielded from society's harsh economic realities. The starkest conditions of poverty and hunger are far removed from the experience of middle-class suburban kids. Generous allowances and a dramatic expansion of jobs suited to the part-time employment of teenagers in the food service and retail businesses in the 1970s have put more money in the pockets of these young people for cars, stereos, fashions and even drugs, than at any time in the past.

This has led to a phenomenon that Jerald Bachman and Lloyd D. Johnston call "premature affluence."

Their Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan has found that about 30 percent of high school seniors in 1980 earned more than $200 a month, and 60 percent earned more than $100. It also turned up the fact that half of these seniors were working an average of 16 hours a week or more.

The percentage of young people working and the percentage working more than 20 hours a week have both been going up about 2 percent a year for the last few years, they reported. The irony, of course, is that the really crippling unemployment centers of kids, especially poor blacks, who have dropped out of high school and need jobs but have trouble getting them.

Television and "premature affluence" may explain why most of the seniors surveyed by the institute expect to have as many material goods as their parents and half expect to have more -even though a majority also expects things to get worse for the nation in the next five years.

So why is there such a panic in paradise?

By a curious twist, premature affluence may have increased the pressures to accumulate material goods. Kids often complain of the demands to keep up -to buy designer fashions, or pay their share of increasingly expensive entertainment. At the same time they fear that the pleasures and material possessions they are so accustomed to at home will be taken away when they go to college or go looking for an apartment and a job.

Parents press them to study hard and get good grades. But the children, listening to the incessant worrying of their parents about money, bills, inflation and high interest rates, are often left unconvinced that following the system's rules is the road to happiness and a good life. In a way, this conflict could be considered a tribute to a successful society, to the extent that young people have passed beyond the most basic questions of survival.

Nowhere do such "positive dilemmas" come through more clearly than in the concerns of young women.

Their desire to combine the fulfillment of a family with the income and satisfaction that comes from work may be the strongest guarantee that this new generation will not give up the struggle, begun in the '60s, for a more humanistic society. Young women, in particular, have a vested interest in a system that is not just economically productive and competitive, but also socially innovative and genuinely concerned about each individual citizen's "pursuit of happiness."

As far as women are concerned, there are battles still to be won -some with the society at large, some within themselves.

"I don't knock 'housewife' as long as that's your number one thing. But deep inside I get frustrated because sometimes I think it's worthless, because it's a 24-hour job and I think you should be doing something else with your life," says a young woman from a Chicago suburb.

Male sexual attitudes, one clue to the future, are changing.

Only 12 percent of high school males rate as desirable the traditional arrangement of full-time working husband and stay-at-home wife, according to the University of Michigan poll. Two out of three males saaid it was either acceptable or desirable for husband and wife to share the housework equally if both are employed.

But change comes slowly.

In 1979, a national cross-section of teen-agers aged 13 to 18 was asked what kind of work they thought they would do for a career. There was a sharp division between the top 10 preferences of girls and boys, with girls putting "secretary" at the top of the list and including professions (such as nurse, social worker and stewardess) absent from the boys' list.

Like many of their older, 30-ish sisters who are managing to combine jobs and families, today's young women wonder whether trying to have it both ways may be too much of a strain.

Marriage and children are still goals -a form of desired fulfillment -for the vast majority. Three out of four unmarried women under 20 expect to have at least two children.

But Maryann Ratusnik, another undergraduate at Cleveland State, is an example of a young woman who has doubts about starting her own family. She'll be 25 when she leaves law school and just isn't sure.

"I'm attached to a family, but I feel like I've worked too long and hard myself to say, 'Fine, I'll get married and have kids and forget about all my dreams and ambitions.' There's no way my mother could have said that."

Whether Maryann Ratusnik will change her mind later on, as so many other young working women have, is one of the fascinating questions this generation will answer for us. With or without a family, she will be going to work in a world that is different from her mother's. The extent to which her generation will alter that world to its own needs will be one of the continuing dramas of the '80s.