As a stiff breeze sent hundreds of graduates in purple and white gowns groping for their tassled caps on a warm June night, high school senior Michelle Lentini stood pondering her future.

Lentini, 17, said she expects to earn her first million dollars in her own advertising agency by age 35 and hopes to find a good man to father six kids along the way. Her biggest fear is that a nuclear blast will wipe out her well-planned agenda.

"I just don't want it to happen. I have hard-core thoughts about the future," said the student at Lake Braddock High School in Fairfax County. "I'm going to become rich."

Comes now the Class of 1987, a generation of new adults that many say is committed to itself with a vengeance.

The fiery concerns of many of their predecessors over peace and social justice are mementos from a dimming past. Opinionated but not activists, troubled but resigned about political and religious affairs, the Class of 1987 -- with nearly 50,000 members in the Washington area -- is gripped by a different kind of heady preoccupation.

In the schoolyards, hallways and lunchrooms, the talk among seniors this year goes beyond the usual graduation jitters and fears of leaving home for the first time and high school buddies perhaps forever. The talk concerns material success: how best to get it, and what most can deter it, such as a bewildering threat like AIDS.

"I want to be rich. I do," said senior Stacey Green of Largo High, which sits in a middle-class residential neighborhood near the Capital Centre in Prince George's County. "I know myself. I'm money hungry," said Green, her neck boasting six fine gold chains and two gold charms.

By age 25, after getting a business degree from Bowie State College, Green hopes to be the manager of a vacation resort. "I think I should be in a {Mercedes} Benz by then," she said one day last week during a break from her job at an athletic footwear store.

The determination of these students to get rich seems to exceed that of students in the past two decades, according to social scientists and other observers of social trends.

"It's gone to a new level," said David Walsh, a psychologist for Fairview Hospitals in Minneapolis who has studied extensively the teen-age phenomenon of "designer label kids." "We always want the best. That's carried over to our kids," Walsh said.

The mind-set of today's high school graduates, in some respects, might best be equated to that of the silent generation of the 1950s.

But while the students of the '50s wanted what money could buy, today's graduates want it and want it now, according to Walsh. "The inability to delay gratification is more intense because everything is more instantaneous," he said, citing television and credit cards as two examples. "If we want it, we can get it now."

The differences between what many of the graduates of the '60s wanted and what today's youth want are stark. The political and social upheavals of the past 20 years led to shifts in attitudes about materialism and traditional American values, social researchers say.

In 1966, for example, 43.8 percent of the incoming college freshmen in the United States, a group whose outlook became indelibly defined by the Vietnam War, said it was essential or very important to be very well off financially. The proportion rose to 73.2 percent in 1986, according to a survey conducted at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute.

At the same time, students' desire to fight for a cause has dropped dramatically. In 1967, 82.9 percent of the college freshmen said it was essential or very important to develop a meaningful philosophy of life, compared with 40.6 percent in 1986.

"It could be argued that acceptance of the goal of making a lot of money obviates the need for some students to develop a meaningful philosophy of life," the UCLA survey concluded. "Indeed, it may be that some students view making a lot of money as a kind of philosophy of life in itself."

Among about 50 Washington area graduates interviewed by The Washington Post last week in a nonscientific survey, the preoccupation with money crossed racial and economic lines as well as geographic boundaries.

By 10:25 last Tuesday morning, the lunchroom tables were filling up at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School, which has a diverse student population, ethnically and economically. One table was quickly nabbed by seniors Anthony Hogan, Rodolfo Quispe, Hernando Hernandez and Bashah Lucas, who have met for lunch every school day for the past year. For them, it is a time for ribbing and relaxation in the exhilarating but disquieting final days of school.

Chow time -- or any other time, for that matter -- is not the time to express social outrage.

"It's not the 'in' thing to do. You stand out like a thumb," said Hogan, raising his thumb for emphasis. The 17-year-old, a member of the school debate team and president of the German Club, said he plans to become a genetic engineer because the field is fairly new and promises a lucrative career.

Hogan recalled a demonstration against apartheid that the school's current events club attended. He said 10 to 15 students participated, but he was not among them.

"If someone told me to go down there, I'd go only if it was convenient for me," he said. "I just don't have time to do it.

"We have South Africa, AIDS, social programs. We have a whole lot of things. There's stuff you can do, but right now that's not what's on my mind. I'm more concerned about how to go to college than solving problems."

Hogan's friends, all of whom plan to go to college or join the military, nodded in agreement.

Their conversation was echoed at another lunchroom table on another day.

At one point, Jim Dawes, the lanky valedictorian of T.C. Williams, who wants to be a novelist, was trying to impart to his peers the irrelevance of wealth. "It's not necessary," he said. "People who get rich lose their priorities."

A friend studied Dawes for a moment, then offered a private, joking aside: "Remember, he's a geek."

Sam Brothers, a self-assured Lake Braddock High graduate who plans to be a music composer, said he could see no other life for himself but one of great riches.

"I don't care what it takes," he said Monday before an evening church service for his school's graduating seniors, most of them from white, middle-class families. "I'd do anything to live the life of extravagance. I want the two nice cars, your stereotypical two kids, a four-bedroom house, a dog and a white picket fence," said Brothers, flashing a smile as a cluster of primping 11th grade girls passed by.

When Brothers, a part-time cook at a pizza restaurant in Burke, wanted a $4,000 music keyboard last summer, he said, he worked four consecutive 80-hour weeks to pay for it.

For Brothers, college is a must because "it offers a wider range of things for you to get into higher-paying jobs. I'm going to be out in the world, like every other yuppie, trying to earn more money than any other yuppie."

He is not alone. For many graduating seniors, college is an important step on the path to success. Contemplating a future without college, one senior said: "You might as well be a street sweeper."

While college has been viewed as a ticket to a better life by many generations, today's high school graduates increasingly view it as a way of getting rich. In the fall of 1986, 70.6 percent of incoming freshmen said a very important reason to go to college was to be able to make more money, while in the early 1970s 49.9 percent said that was the case, according to the UCLA survey.

"My goal in life is to become a nationally acclaimed cardiovascular surgeon," said Nicole McCrea, who graduated from Cardozo High, which is in one of the District's poorest neighborhoods.

McCrea said her interests lie in health and medicine, and she plans to study pre-med biology at Fisk University in Nashville on scholarships. But she added, "Everybody knows that surgeons make money." She figures that her earnings will be $5,000 to $10,000 per operation 10 years from now.

If college is not the route, the military is. For some graduates, especially those from lower-income families, it offers a chance to make more money and to broaden horizons.

Rodney Bolden, 17, a T.C. Williams senior, said he is joining the Air Force to get off the streets of Alexandria. "The people I know think about having fun, and that's it," he said. "They go to parties, hang on corners and get high. I'll hang around people who have better goals." Bolden said that about 40 of his friends have made similar decisions.

For the Class of 1987, a college and a career come first, but having a family is also important. And perhaps more than any other group, those who are products of single-parent homes yearn for the security and stability of a family.

Andre Ford is a strapping basketball forward from DuVal High in Lanham, a predominantly black school in northern Prince George's. Ford said he is hoping for a college scholarship that won't take him too far from his family's apartment in Landover.

Ford, and other graduates as well, want to become parents someday and have close relationships with their children. "I wouldn't want to ever desert my kids," he said, "because I know how it feels."

Seretha Tearsall of the District of Columbia and Margaret McCormack of Temple Hills cast a skeptical eye on the selfish images attributed to their generation.

"Older people always look back on their own generation through rose-colored glasses," said McCormack, who graduated from La Reine Catholic School, a girls' school in Suitland.

Tearsall, a graduate of Roosevelt High in Northwest Washington, said she is concerned more about humane issues than material possessions.

She has abandoned plans to major in business at Howard University, after having studied hotel management at the city's Burdick Vocational Center and working as an intern in the accounting department of a hotel. Worried by the pervasive use of drugs, she said she wants to major in the health field, perhaps in occupational therapy.

"I would rather help someone than make a lot of money," she said.

Still, for those graduates who concede a lagging concern for social issues of the day, their defense is that those problems -- among them, Nicaragua, South Africa and civil rights -- seem removed and intangible, unlike a Vietnam that threatened young men with the draft.

The danger of acquired immune deficiency syndrome is very real to these students, with "beach week" and campus life in the offing.

"I've seen so much about it on the news. It's starting to get me worried. I know others are worried, too," said Cecilia Woo, a senior at Arlington's Wakefield High who is considering a major in computer science at Virginia Tech.

At the mention of the disease in the weight-lifting room at W.T. Woodson High in central Fairfax County, sweating athletes groan.

"It's really scary," said Eric Entlich, a graduating senior and a wrestler who wrung out his T-shirt as he talked. "You just have to be really careful about the crowds you hang around with. You never know."

With their grand schemes for life, many of the graduates seem older than their years. But the prospect of saying goodbye to the safety of the school day routine has a way of shedding a newly sophisticated, young adult veneer. A nervous tremor creeps into voices; faces turn shyly away to reveal insecurities.

Now that school is out, Tom Cushman, a senior at West Springfield High School in Fairfax County, said he is scared of moving on.

During the past four years, Cushman said, he was suspended more than 20 times for discipline problems and had to be pushed by his parents to complete his education.

The 17-year-old did finish, and last week he showed up in his gray 1977 Camaro to attend a service for his graduating class. He said he had planned to cruise out early but found himself taking in the solemn ceremony from start to finish. "It was something I felt I ought to do," he said later.

"All through high school, I couldn't wait to graduate," said Cushman, who wants to be a veterinarian and a millionaire. "I thought it would be a great sense of relief. Now, it's a great sense of insecurity. There's a lot of choices to make. I'm not sure how it's all going to turn out."