The U.S. women's movement is reaching "critical mass," according to Patricia Aburdene and John Naisbitt, authors of "Megatrends" and "Megatrends 2000." They've just released a new book, "Mega-trends for Women."

Think of "critical mass" as the point of no return, they say. You may not notice the snow on a moun-tain ridge, as it slowly builds and builds. But one day, critical mass is reached. Then comes the avalanche.Aburdene and Naisbitt write, "Not only do a critical mass of men and women embrace women's liberation - that has probably been the case for a decade or more, but a second critical mass of women and like-minded men are acting on that belief to shape society and the institutions within it."

Aburdene and Naisbitt wrote the book because "women need to know how other women are shaping social, political and economic trends, and men, in order to function in today's world, need to know about it, too."

Why are women's trends important? Take the shopping mall, for example.

The number of shopping centers and malls grew from 3,680 in 1960 to 36,650 in 1990. Too bad the marketing experts of 10 years ago couldn't read the signs: More single-parent families. Women working outside the home in ever-increasing numbers. Fewer women with both money and time for a leisurely stroll through the mall. The shrinking population of teens won't fill the shopping gap.

Retailers failed women, say the authors, "failed to study them, cater to them, anticipate their changing needs." As a result, Aburdene and Naisbitt cite a report saying 20 percent of regional malls will close by 2001. Meanwhile, the budget-minded seek outlet shops and the too-busy use catalogs - in increasing numbers.

As one of the nation's well-known futurists, Utah-born John Naisbitt has a long list of predictions for which he can be held accountable. In 1978 he correctly predicted acid rain would become a national issue. In 1980 he incorrectly predicted Jimmy Carter's re-election.

Also in the early 1980s he said working at home in "electronic cottages" would never be a big trend because people like offices and have a need to be around other people. In "Megatrends for Women," he predicts the opposite - more and more employees at home, linked by computer to the office.

The authors themselves are part of this trend. They're married, living in Telluride, Colo., joined to the world through computer and telephone lines.

They employ just one research assistant, based in Washington, D.C. For the most part, Aburdene and Naisbitt rely on local news from a variety of papers for their trend-tracing. As the cities and towns of America change, so changes the nation, they believe.

The authors admit they are optimists. Every trend they see, every move women make, is heralded as positive. Their vision of the future is of a more caring world as women's values become integrated into society.

Maybe. Or will these trends be met with resistance, wonders Lisa Lambert, director of the executive MBA program at Brigham Young Uni-versity.

"My sense is that Aburdene and Naisbitt tend to predict what could be without identifying the restraining forces," says Reba Keele, pro-fes-sor of management at the University of Utah. "They are very good at seeing the driving forces. It's a bit like saying, `This is the year for women in politics!' But half the women who were running (nationally) didn't make it past the primaries. So the old forces that have kept them out are still present."

Laura Jenkinson is former president of Utah Association of Women Business Owners. She is aware of one of Naisbitt and Aburdene's megatrends: By late 1992, women-owned businesses will employ more people than the Fortune 500 companies do.

"The track record of women in business is simply spectacular," conclude the authors, enthu-si-as-ti-cal-ly.

But it's easier on the family if Mom works for a Fortune 500 than if she's running her own show, cautions Jenkinson. If her business is a small one, she's probably working more hours, with less money for child care and fewer employee benefits than executives in a large company.

"Unless a husband is supporting that person's career, the family could be falling apart," Jenkinson says. She doesn't disagree about the fact that businesswomen are changing the world. But Jenkinson hears society creaking under the strain as women try to be both caretaker and breadwinner.

Jenkinson hears frustration in women's voices. Naisbitt and Aburdene hear only elation. When we look back on the 1990s, the authors say, we will see this as the period when women entered busi-ness, sports, law and medicine in large enough masses to make a difference.

"The result is love in action. With it women are transforming the world."

*****

(Additional information)

10 megatrends for women

POLITICS - There will be 10 to 15 female governors in 1998. A woman could be president early in the 21st century.

SPORTS - As more women play and coach, the emphasis of sports will shift from winning to doing your best. Women could beat men in a marathon as soon as 1998.

THE WORKPLACE - - The corporate world begins to realize benefits of women in management, benefits like a woman's greater ability to foster employee creativity.

- Women will make great gains in pay equity. (Even now a woman who takes eight hours of math in college can expect to earn as much as a man in her chosen field. She'll earn more than a man if her field is finance or manufacturing.) - As women move up the corporate ladder, the workplace becomes more flexible, better integrated with family life.

- The model for a new cooperative corporate structure could come from "collaborative couples." (Increasingly, husbands and wives are going into business together.)

IN RELIGION - Increasing numbers of women will lead worship in churches and synagogues. The Catholic Church (no date specified) will allow women to be priests.

IN HEALTH CARE - When the politically savvy baby boom generation hits menopause, doctors will hear the call for change - from both inside and outside their profession. More money will be spent for research on breast and ovarian cancer, hormone replacement therapy, women and heart attacks.

THE FAMILY - - Women who can afford to are confident enough about their careers to take a few years off when their children are born.

- Inspired by women's example and demands, corporations will find ways for all employees (and 78 percent of men say they want more time with family) to work fewer hours.

- Leisure time replaces money as a status symbol.

IN FASHION - Women will continue to buy mid-priced clothes from female designers who understand their needs. They will ignore fashion "dictates." The anorexic look is passe.

IN THEIR OWN SOULS - As they age, women search for a spiritual heritage - in the goddesses of ancient Greece or in the Mother Earth worship of Native Americans. Older women will restore reverence for wisdom and maturity to the youth-crazed U.S. culture.

IN THEIR COMMUNITIES - Women have gone from being volunteers to social activists. Add to that trend the increasing numbers of women in medicine and law and see a culture in which rapists and abusers are social outcasts.

IN THE WORLD - Powerful women are emerging on every continent. Their shared concerns about poverty, health, education and the environment will translate into a New World Order.