ere in the land of liberalism, where Europe's most energetic peace movement was spawned and the welfare state approached its outer limits, something is changing.

A new realism, some call it, a no-more-nonsense mood, has set in. Beset by economic difficulties and confronted by the related problems of a housing shortage, unemployment, racial tensions and growing social unrest, the Netherlands has a troubled look today far different from the relaxed liberal image that so beguiled its friends in the 1960s.

For the Reagan administration, the new Dutch seriousness is actually welcomed for it has meant, amng other things, a greater willingness by The Hague to undertake preparations for the planned NATO deployment of 48 cruise missiles. A center-right Dutch government installed last month has shifted the country from a policy of passive cooperation with NATO on the missile preparations to one of promised active participation.

At the same time, Dutch officials continue to duck a firm commitment to accept the nuclear-tipped weapons on their soil should the time for deployment come. A majority of the Dutch are still clearly opposed to the new rockets.

"The results of the U.S.-Soviet arms control talks in Geneva will be a very important factor when the question will be considered whether the Netherlands will or will not proceed with the deployment of cruise missiles," Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers told parliament last month.

The issue of the missiles' deployment is apt to be the most divisive in the country next year. Under the 1979 decision by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 464 cruise missiles and 108 Pershing IIs are to be deployed in the Netherlands, Belgium, West Germany, Italy and Britain beginning at the end of 1983.

Because the Dutch are among the last scheduled to receive their share of the total missile allotment, there is still plenty of time before they are actually fielded. But to make those deployments, The Hague needs to take steps toward site selection and commission preliminary studies on soil and community impact next year. Actual construction would start in 1984.

Any decision the Netherlands makes will have major repercussions throughout the Western alliance, particularly on Belgium and West Germany.

Belgium has also been forestalling a decision on deployment and could be expected to follow the Dutch lead. In Germany, a Dutch vote accepting the new missiles would strengthen Bonn's strong support for the stationing plan.

Leaders of the Dutch peace movement, the best-organized anti-nuclear campaign in Europe, acknowledge disparagingly that their government has not responded to mass street demonstrations against the missiles, the largest--and last--of which drew 400,000 people into Amsterdam's streets a year ago.

"In effect, Dutch policy is slowly adjusting to the reality of the NATO decision," said Laurens Hogebrink, a board member of the Inter-Church Peace Council, Holland's main peace group.

But absent majority support for the decision -- about two-thirds of the country continues to oppose installation of the new missiles -- Dutch protest organizers remain determined to block the deployment.

"We are preparing for new ways of demonstrating," Hogebrink explained, "that will emphasize institutional opposition as well as popular opposition to the weapons." He included special protest actions by teachers, doctors, church officials and the mayors of the numerous Dutch towns that have declared themselves nuclear-free zones.

A more immediate concern than the missiles is the economy. After a quarter of a century as one of the two or three most generous welfare states in the world, the Netherlands has begun weaning people off of reliance on a range of benefits.

Pointing the way toward deep public spending cuts, the new Hague government has announced plans to save $5 billion in 1983 and another $8.1 billion in the three years to follow. Included in this will be civil service reductions and "a major change" in the social security system.

Signaling a new social consensus, unions and employers have started talking about undoing collective wage agreements on wage indexation and on shorter working weeks.

Another sign of Holland's general down-to-business tilt came in the rapidity with which the new conservative government was put together last month. Normally, building a Dutch coalition is an agonizing months-long process, but the Christian Democrats (with 45 seats) and the Liberals (with 36) got together in a record seven weeks.

Left-leaning Labor, though now the largest party with 47 seats, is stewing in the opposition, along with the once-trendy centrist Democrats '66, who dropped from 17 to 6 seats in September's vote.

The change also catapulted to center stage the youthful chairman of the Liberal Party, Ed Nijpels, 32, an ambitious and engaging new European political personality. His easygoing manner masks a hard-edged politics that seems to appeal particularly to the coming generation of Dutch voters.

"I think we are doing well by suggesting to people we want another society," Nijpels said in a recent interview. "You see a society now where people don't have any responsibility because the government does everything for them. You see a lot of bureaucracy. You see times changing, a reaction against some of the excesses of the 1960s."

On his desk as Nijpels spoke was a Dutch magazine featuring President Reagan on the cover. While there would seem to be parallels between the new Dutch direction and Reagan-brand conservatism, Nijpels made clear Holland's turn is less sharp than America's was in 1980. European liberalism, though increasingly shifting right in economic management, remains center-left in social policy and protection of individual and minority rights.

In foreign and security policy, too, the strong pro-Western alliance views of those like Nijpels on Holland's now ruling center-right are shaded by a sharply critical assessment of U.S. actions and understandings.

"In the United States I don't think they understand how we think about peace," said the Liberal Party leader. "In America I think they jump too quickly to the view that European critics are anti-American or all communists.

This last remark seemed a reference to U.S. involvement in Central America, which has drawn strong disagreement and protests in Holland, particularly last year when the death of four Dutch journalists in El Salvador triggered anti-U.S. demonstrations in Amsterdam that forced the closing of the U.S. consul general's office.

A fierce champion of the idea of freedom since his several visits to the Soviet Bloc, and particularly a trip to Czechoslovakia in 1968, Nijpels is a staunch advocate of NATO and the missile deployment plan. But he could not promise that his government will eventually take any of the new weapons.

Thirty percent of his own party, he said, oppose the installation of cruise missiles on Dutch soil and at least six deputies in the senior government coalition partner, the Christian Democratic Appeal, are deeply opposed to the stationing. "It will always be a tricky business in parliament," said Nijpels.