SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Ofelia Bell was born in the 1950s, a typical child of an optimistic era. Her mother gave music lessons and her father worked most of his life in a factory making machine parts.

They were not rich, but they owned their home, put their children through college and saved for their retirement.

Now Bell, a 37-year-old mother of three, looks at her own children and wonders how they will ever have the same advantages, how they will pay for college, buy a home or get a good job.

"I fear for my children's future," said Bell, a secretary who is married to an electrician. "I know I won't be able to do for them what my parents did for me."

With a recession looming, an unexpected international crisis threatening to bring war, and resentment of politicians obvious from city hall to Congress, a sense of national pessimism has taken hold with surprising power and swiftness this fall. Problems that have hovered on the edges of national consciousness for years have rushed to the forefront. The new national anxiety is reflected in the answer Americans now give to one of the pollsters' favorite questions: Has the country gone "off on the wrong track?"

In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 79 percent -- four out of five Americans -- said it had. The country has not been so gloomy since 1974, when the nation was enmeshed in the Watergate crisis and reeling from the Arab oil embargo.

Nowhere is this sense of foreboding more apparent than in the attitudes of men and women with a direct personal investment in the future -- the parents of young children. While anxiety is a handmaiden of parenthood, many middle-class parents today nurture a different kind of fear -- rare for Americans who grew up assuming an ever-better tomorrow -- that their children's lives could well be harder than theirs.

In a group of 27 parents assembled by The Post in this upstate New York city to discuss their attitudes about the future, there was unusually broad agreement that childhood had become a more difficult experience and that, as adults, this generation of children will face even more challenges in a society that has sold its next generation short.

"I don't think our kids are going to have an easy time living as comfortably as we've done," said Susan Dischiave, a mother of two who manages computer systems for the Syracuse public schools. "We're not investing enough in our kids. We're not investing enough in them educationally."

The demographics of Syracuse's 160,000 people mirror those of the nation, and the anxieties of these parents are supported by hard national statistics:Young families with children suffered a 24 percent decline in median income between 1973 and 1987, a figure that approaches the 27 percent decline in per capita income in the Depression years following the 1929 economic collapse. The mortgage payments on a typical house were 21 percent of a young family's average income in 1968, and 51 percent in 1986. Nearly 20 percent of children live in poverty -- making them the poorest demographic group in the United States. On standardized tests, American children perform far behind their counterparts in other industrialized countries with whom they will compete in a high-technology future. Today's youngsters do no better than American children did a generation ago. Young people who join the work force with only a high school diploma (or less) appear destined for a dramatically lower standard of living for the rest of their lives than contemporaries who go to college. The prospect of obtaining a middle-class life with a blue-collar job diminishes every year. Yet education costs are rising much faster than the rate of inflation, and parents find it increasingly difficult to save for their children's education.

A national survey taken in September by The Post and ABC reinforced the impressions of parental anxiety conveyed by the Syracuse parents. Eighty-nine percent said that 10 years from now, it will be more difficult for young people to afford college; 75 percent said it will be harder to find a good job; 87 percent saw worse prospects for buying a house.

"People have the sense that the dream is beginning to crumble," said Kevin Phillips, a Republican political theorist, whose book, "The Politics of Rich and Poor," is highly critical of Reaganomics and the high-life ethic that took root in the 1980s.

While many parents will accept blame for shortchanging their children, they also express anger at the forces seemingly beyond their control that they feel conspire against them -- an economic system that forces them to work yet makes no provision for child care, the advertisers that fuel their children's materialism, an education system that doesn't adequately educate.

Parents in Syracuse are aware of the many tests and measurements that show American children falling behind Japanese, Koreans and others in many basic academic skills. Many expressed skepticism about the education their children receive.

"I think we're heading away from a blue-collar environment to a white collar, and those kids who can't make it in the education system and can't pick up technology are not going to have any opportunities," said Dischiave.

Frank Levy, an economics professor at the University of Maryland, found that in 1986, the income of a 30-year-old man with four years of college was 49 percent higher than that of a counterpart with four years of high school. In 1973, the differential was just 15 percent.

At the same time a college diploma has become more of an economic necessity, it also has become significantly more expensive. Annual tuition now averages $9,931 at private colleges and $1,809 at public colleges.

Most families must either dig deep into their savings or take out substantial loans to cover college costs. But Americans are saving less than in the past -- personal savings have declined from about 7 percent of disposable income in the early 1950s to about 5.5 percent in 1989 -- and most of that money is not set aside for education.

A 1986 analysis of Federal Reserve System data found that only 34 percent of American parents were saving for their children's college education and that group was relatively affluent, with an average income of $42,486.

Home ownership is another piece of the dream that now seems elusive for many parents here, who wonder if their children will ever be able to buy a house. They have cause for wondering. The National Association of Home Builders estimates that, while 48 percent of American households could afford the median-priced home in 1970, only about 26 percent could do so in 1989. Homeownership rates have fallen among all age groups, but most dramatically among those under age 30.

Florence Williams, a teacher whose husband is a furnace operator for Chrysler Corp., owns a home in a section of Syracuse where her mother used to work as a domestic. But when Williams envisions the future for her three children, she doubts they will be able to do as well.

"I would be happy if they could afford their own homes, but I have a feeling they'll be living with us," she said.

Yet even as Williams worries her children won't achieve what she has, she and other parents fear another set of troubles from the adult world -- a system of values that encourages immediate gratification and undercuts the rewards of hard work.

"People have always wanted things," she said. "It's just now, how are we guiding children into getting the things that they want? We're giving instead of saying, 'You're going to need to work and earn.' "

Many Syracuse parents seemed haunted by signs that society had taught children to consume conspicuously, but not to be productive, work hard or save. The most often-cited symbol of that ethic: the pricey sneakers that ranked so high on their children's list of priorities.

"You know, I go to work all day and I don't have $89 sneakers and my son's not going to have them, even if he's got the 89 bucks in his hot little hands," said Neil Battelle, 41, an assistant manager in a print shop and the father of three.

While it is hard to compare something as abstract as values, there are studies that support complaints of parents that children have become more materialistic. An annual survey of more than 200,000 entering college freshmen, for example, found that 72 percent last year cited "making more money" as a very important factor in their decision to go to college, compared to 49.9 percent in 1971.

Many parents blame the hyper-consumption on a society that permits mass media, movies and advertising to push their messages so relentlessly at a vulnerable audience of children. Advertising aimed at young people has in fact increased dramatically in recent years: In 1989, about $500 million was spent on advertising targeting children 2 to 12, most of it on television, according to figures compiled by James McNeal, a marketing professor at Texas A&M University. By comparison, the figure in the early 1980s was about $100 million.

But many parents blame themselves, saying their children are merely emulating the behavior they see around them.

"The whole country right now is living on plastic," said Barbara Humphrey, a 43-year-old city planner and mother of two boys. "And I don't know why we should expect our children to have different values than we do."

Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist at Harvard University, predicts that the values children are learning today will be felt collectively when this generation reaches adulthood.

"I don't mean to get overly psychoanalytical, but this is the old 'teddy bear syndrome,' " Coles said. "Some of this frenzied need of children to have possessions isn't only a function of the ads they see on TV. It's a function of their hunger for what they aren't getting -- their parent's time.

"The biggest change I have seen in 30 years of interviewing families is that children are no longer being cared for by their parents the way they once were," Coles continued. "Parents are too busy spending their most precious capital -- their time and their energy -- struggling to keep up with the Mastercard payments. They're depleted. They work long hours to barely keep up, and when they get home at the end of the day, they're tired. And their kids are left with a Nintendo or a pair of Nikes or some other piece of crap. Big deal.

"Surely what we're doing to our children is as great a threat to our national well-being as Saddam Hussein," he said. "I don't mean to blame parents. They're faced with an economy that makes them work harder and harder just to keep up, and they don't have the time or energy or family structure that allows them to instill moral values. My fear is that we're raising a generation of children who are going to be self-centered, narcissistic and utterly self-preoccupied adults."

Many parents torn by the competing demands of work and home make the same connection Coles does between the amount of time they spend with their children and the values their sons and daughters inherit. Common sense would say that children today are spending less time with their parents, an assumption that is partially borne out by research.

Working mothers do spend less time with their children than those who do not work outside the home, and the proportion of mothers in the work force has grown from 35 percent in 1965 to 66.7 percent. But on average, American mothers spend about the same number of hours on primary child-care activities -- feeding and dressing, for example -- as they did in the past, according to John P. Robinson, University of Maryland professor of sociology and director of the Americans' Use of Time Project. That figure has risen from eight hours weekly in 1965 to nine hours in 1985.

Children of working mothers, Robinson said, "probably are getting less time, but mothers are . . . compensating by spending more time with them when they are home."

That, of course, means the pace of life has become more hectic, or at least people perceive it as such. And that perception only adds to the guilt complex common among working parents.

Cathy King, a mother of three who quit her job as a special education teacher, complained that the increase in working couples means that children often move from one scheduled activity to another, with little or no unstructured time.

"The child is not able to really just grow up in an environment where he's just free to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it," she said.

The sense that society has somehow failed to make provisions for the changing nature of family life is shared by a number of parents. One woman said her husband's employer had resisted requests for flexible hours that would allow mothers to work part time or fathers to help out with child care because the managers did not see that such arrangements were in the company's interests.

And Humphrey, who drops off her 5-year-old son at day care each morning before work, argued that policy-makers had done little to provide affordable child care or quality after-school programs.

"The demographics have changed," she said, "and the systems have not caught up."

Staff researcher Bruce Brown and polling analyst Sharon Warden contributed to this report.