11/11/2013 07:05 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

We Need a Shot in the Arm, if Not a Moonshot

The recent dysfunction in Washington, with its massive collateral damage to the economy and national morale, couldn't have come at a worse time. It was no mere blip in America's otherwise good spirits. In fact, Americans haven't thought the country was on the right track since 2004. And now, according to a global poll commissioned by Thomson Reuters on "The New Professional," it seems that not only are professionals in developed markets like the U.S. low on the drive, hunger, and entrepreneurial spirit that used to fuel our economy -- but professionals in emerging-market countries like China, India, and Brazil are more than picking up the slack.

According to the poll, conducted by Penn Schoen Berland in partnership with Thomson Reuters in February and March of this year, only 29 percent of professionals in developed markets such as the US and the UK describe themselves as "always" or "almost always" optimistic, compared to a sizeable 48 percent of professionals in emerging-market countries such as China, India, and Brazil. When asked to rate the statement "I believe hard work will always be rewarded," a paltry 17 percent of developed-market professionals strongly agreed, compared to 42 percent of emerging-market professionals. And regarding the statement, "I want to be able to be entrepreneurial in my job," only 30 percent of developed-market professionals strongly agreed, compared to fully 58 percent of professionals in emerging markets.

Even the sense of fairness and purpose that surrounds work is depressed in developed markets, while it is robust in emerging ones. In the US and UK, fewer than half of the professionals polled said the business world is "mostly" or "always" ethical, whereas in emerging markets, fully two-thirds of professionals said it was. And whereas here and in the UK, fewer than half of professionals said it is "very important" to do "important work," be part of "something bigger than myself," and "improve the world" -- in emerging markets, those things were considered very important by large majorities.

It's as though our most significant export lately has been the American Dream -- at the expense of it at home.

To be sure, America has dealt with the doldrums before. Seventy-five years ago, the Depression Generation also brought a cautious outlook to bear -- but once the children of the 1930s enjoyed the GI Bill of the 1940s and 50s, a great deal of belief in opportunity was restored. In the 1970s, President Carter declared American malaise, with no corresponding plan to address it -- and was quickly supplanted by the more optimistic Ronald Reagan. In 1995, President Clinton sensed another waning of belief in opportunity, but turned it around with economic policies that promoted unprecedented economic growth.

Given the state of our economy today, we may not have the luxury of a moonshot like the GI Bill or the invention of the Internet to restore Americans' faith in opportunity. But we must do something, because our young people are internalizing the melancholy as the new normal. In the Thomson Reuters poll, the most optimistic group in the developed markets was age 50-64, with barely one in four professionals aged 18-34 calling themselves optimistic. We must take some, even if smaller, steps.

First, we should stop focusing just on manufacturing jobs when we talk of rebuilding the economy, but rather pay greater attention to the technology sector and other places of upward mobility. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, technology and math-related jobs (which carry a median salary of more than $73,000) will see 22 percent growth by 2020, whereas manufacturing and production-related jobs (with a median salary of only $30,000) will see barely 4 percent growth. Jobs plans from any serious national leader must jumpstart people's sense of opportunity, focusing on where jobs will really come from and encouraging innovation, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Second, we should start in high school or even primary school to emphasize the skills that these jobs will require. We must strengthen K-12 math and science to better prepare students for college and possible careers in these disciplines, as well as implement the new math and science national standards across the country. We also need to boost the engineering and business skills that are critical to re-igniting our entrepreneurial spirit.

And third, we should approach immigration through the lens of entrepreneurship. According to a 2012 Small Business Administration report, rates of business formation are more than twice as high among immigrants as among the native-born. Another 2012 study by the nonprofit Partnership for a New American Economy found that immigrants are named in more than three in four patents at America's Top 10 research universities. If we want our entrepreneurial spirit back, we must open our arms wide to industrious, creative people who have a passion for upward mobility.

The belief in opportunity that has always sustained America is on the wane -- and while we ponder the reasons and re-stitch our broken government back together -- millions of professionals outside our borders are enjoying the ambition, drive, and initiative that used to be ours. Going forward, the test for domestic policies should be whether they rebuild that sense of drive and opportunity. If they don't, we are probably arguing about policies that -- even if they prevail -- in the end, won't really matter.

Mark Penn is Executive Vice President for Advertising and Strategy at Microsoft and a former White House pollster. Don Baer is Worldwide Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the strategic communications firm Burson-Marsteller and former White House Communications Director.