Friday, May 18, 2012 | 9:29 p.m. CDT; updated 10:47 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 9, 2012

SEDALIA — Jon Parkhurst, 33, is a web developer and owner of CDC Digital in Sedalia. He started working at his family’s steel business when he was a teenager. Although he’s attended college on and off over the years, he doesn’t have a degree. Parkhurst, a single father of three, emphasizes experience rather than formal education and passes these values to his children. This is the story he tells.

I really started out with the American Dream. Like the typical thing – you go out, you get into business, you know.

My family owned a steel slitting company in Sedalia. I started working for them when I was maybe 15, did a website for them. But worked on the floor, maintenance. I went into administration, and then from there, while I was the administrative assistant to the president, we began doing some boards to associate all the different steel processors. So by the time I was 17, I was going to some of the nicest places, like some of the places I’ve been to in Detroit. You go up into this office, and you go up 50 floors, and then you open the doors, and you’re looking at these gold-plated fixtures and old oak, and you step in the carpet that’s this thick. I remember before I was 21, just going, 'Ha, I've made it.'

I fell in love, got married. I was 20, maybe 21. I quit moving around so much and doing a lot of the different national board activities, and I actually went back to college. Got a family, got to find a normal, stable job – and so back to college.

Got a divorce. I couldn’t afford to go to (continue) college because I had to pay for my house and her house. I had adopted her child, and then we had a child. He’s 13, she’s 11 and then we have a 9-year-old 'cause I don’t know well enough to leave enough alone, apparently. My parents fought whenever we were kids, but never broke up. Divorce never really entered into my mind, so when that happened, I quit the college thing and went to work.

I worked in the travel industry. I was working for a company that made ticket printers for airline sales. Then 9/11 happened. The travel industry was just obliterated. I was quite a ways down the supply line, but it was really amazing how much 9/11 affected us. We took a big hit. Those ticket printers print out thousands of tickets, 10,000 tickets a week, and they break down a lot, and it was really bizarre when they didn’t print out that many tickets. We lost a lot of our business.

They laid off a lot of people. I didn’t actually get laid off but didn’t like the fact that they were laying off employees who were critical to the business when I wasn’t really critical. I think the company was reduced, in the end, almost by 60 percent.

I moved to Springfield and ended up working for a pool company just because Springfield’s not the most technological area. (My ex-wife) had some mental health issues so we were kind of trying to fix that.

And there again, there’s something that they didn’t talk about in the American Dream because housewives of old either chewed Valium like it was Cheerios or just didn’t say it, and the same thing goes for men. So we tried to work that out. It didn’t work out. Moved up here (to Sedalia).

Now I’m single. I have three kids. We’ve been like that for eight years, right after the birth of my son. You asked me, what are my wants or needs? To not be single with three kids for 10 years. Everything that I’ve had to do has not been what I wanted to do, and I think if you really asked me what my opinion is between the American Dream and what we have: The American Dream is a pipe dream.

Because if everything is ideal, and everything is going to work out like that, that’s wonderful. But you’re counting on two people with the exact same dream meeting up and dreaming that together in real life. The amount of couples that I know that, 10 years after they’re married, are still absolutely in love is maybe two or three. That just doesn’t happen.

You find somebody. You’re comfortable with somebody. You marry them. You love them, but this idea of the white picket fence and always being happy and having the 2.5 kids, that’s not ... I don’t think it’s a reality beneficial to us.

Learning from experience

I was the type of kid who could sit there and listen to people. Most of the people I meet as youths do not do that. We don’t emphasize doing well in high school; join a football team, go to your dances.

Go to high school, do whatever you want, go to college, get a degree and then you go out and find something. Well, spending four years on your own in college gives you a bit of a skewed sense on how things are. Unless you’re putting yourself through college, and you’re buying your own housing, and you’re paying for all your own food, you’re not really an adult yet. You’re still in a little bit of a safety net. You still have people that if you miss three days of school, your professor might be like, you’re not doing very well in my class, and I did mark you down. But he won’t fire you. You can still go back next week. And that’s a huge difference that I see with the work ethic that is encouraged by our current college environment.

Most of the time, especially at bigger universities, you might have teachers who don’t even care if you show up. After you’ve spent four years in college, they’ve taught you that you’re coming out with the best skills they can teach you. You’re a very knowledgeable individual, and that doesn’t really leave a lot of room for you to start at the bottom, which is really what we need to be doing.

As kids, we get so excited about going out and leaving our mark on the world that we kind of forget what kind of mark we’re leaving. I think a lot of this prep work we’re doing for people teaches them more to value themselves than it does to value the experience that they’re going to need in the outside world. At 17, I could do a really good job. Looking at it now, though, I could’ve done so many things so much better.

On one hand, we build people up, and we tell them that they’re going to be ready to go out in the world. I think that lessens the skills set because we’re not saying you need to going out in that world and really look at what you’re doing, look at the people around you, and then still see what you can learn from them.

When you look at the way our society has been involved, you have this mandate that everybody’s been telling us: that if you do things the right way, go to college, fall in love.

Constantly, we are told these things are going to happen. But no, those are things you want to have happen, and I guess that’s where the American Dream or this thing we’re fed has gone wrong. This might be an ideal life, but it’s not a guaranteed life. If you are guaranteed you’re going to find love, and you’re guaranteed you’re going to get a job, and all you have to do is go to college and follow through these marks, well then, you don’t really have to put any personal effort toward it.

I tell my kids that they need to get a skill, and I do not endorse college whole-heartedly. I tell them that if they have the grades, and they work very hard, college can be a direction. But what I tell them about college is: Do not pick a field to get into. Don’t specialize. There’s no point. Go in, get your general degree, do it in four to five years. If you want to specialize, then you can go back and get your master’s or something else after if you want to. .

I don’t know if there’s a fix. I can tell you what I think some of the symptoms are. I think that for a long time people have just gotten this sense of entitlement. I don’t see an accountability in America. That was reinforced for me a hundred-fold over with the buyouts and the business support packages that just went through not too long ago. I said, and was very unpopular for saying, 'Hell with ‘em.' They failed. And everybody said they can’t fail — if they fail, we all go under.

And I said, yeah, that’s what happens, that’s capitalism. But we’re not a capitalism by the government buying out those contracts. We’re told we’re capitalists; we’re told that we’re a democracy. In reality, we’re not even much of a democracy anymore. The amount of influence has changed and America hasn’t updated its rosy-colored glasses.

This American Dream has told us that we’re going to be the best. That’s not true.

I’m not smart enough to run the country. I will never be president of the United States. I am not the physical build that’s going to be playing basketball up and down the court. I don’t care how hard I work, it’s just not going to happen. I can’t do whatever I want to do.

But we don’t tell people that.

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

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