11/08/2013 11:42 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Take This Job and... Shove/Love It?

So which is it? A new survey finds that 90 percent of older workers, and nearly 40 percent of younger workers are satisfied with their work. But many other surveys report high levels of dissatisfaction, stress, unsupportive management and disengagement from work altogether -- across age groups.

How to make sense of this seeming contradiction? They all make sense when you look at the findings more closely, in the context of the career and management environments of many organizations. People of different ages, attitudes and desires deal with their workplace environments in different ways, both subtle and overt.

First, the new survey, reported by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research: It found that "9 in 10 workers who are age 50 or older say they are very or somewhat satisfied with their job." Specifically, 65 percent said they were "very satisfied," while the remaining 26 percent were just "satisfied."

The survey did find that nearly 40 percent of younger workers reported dissatisfaction with their jobs. But on the face of it, the findings suggest that the older you get, you become more "satisfied" with your work. Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey, observed that "Older workers generally have already climbed the career ladder, increased their salaries and reached positions where they have greater security, so more satisfaction makes sense."

These findings may appear puzzling in the face of many other surveys that report high levels of stress, hostile, unsupportive management, and other negative, debilitating experiences that many workers deal with.

My take is that the AP-NORC Center survey unintentionally masked several underlying phenomena. The result was the high level of reported "satisfaction" among all older workers. Some examples:

Some Have "Checked Out," Nearing Retirement

Among workers in their 50's and 60's are those who are nearing retirement age, and some may have resigned themselves to living with their career situations -- regardless of how they feel about them. In essence, they may have checked out, mentally, while waiting for the clock to run out. So if asked, they may say, "Sure... I'm satisfied," while marking the time until they can retire. That perspective may mask the survey findings reporting dissatisfaction and disengagement, such as a Gallup survey that found 70 percent of workers are disengaged from their work; emotionally disconnected and less likely to be productive.

Suffering In Silence When Your Don't See An Alternative

The AP survey lumped together those who said they were "somewhat satisfied" with those who were "very satisfied." But it's likely that those two groups are very different groups. That is, those who report being "somewhat satisfied" -- a lukewarm appraisal, at best -- may include workers who don't see any alternative that would be more fulfilling or rewarding at this point in their careers, or in the organizations they will retire from. Or they don't have the desire or energy looking for an alternative at this point. They might think, "Well, yeah, I'm somewhat satisfied, because there's really no realistic alternative. And anyway, retirement isn't too far away."

This sense of resignation can easily exist alongside the survey by Orion Partners that found 47 percent reporting that their bossed employ destructive management styles, and make them feel threatened rather than rewarded; and that 24 percent find their bosses to be poor communicators, and lacking empathy.

Moreover, feeling "somewhat satisfied" when you don't perceive a viable alternative can certainly co-exist with other surveys that find damaging levels of stress and an unsupportive, destructive management culture in many organizations. For example, a 2013 Work Stress Survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Everest College found 83 percent of workers report rising, debilitating stress in their work. Another, published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine and reported in Fortune, found a link between negative, stressful workplace experiences and an increased risk of disease -- even death.

The Younger Generations Respond Differently

The AP survey finding that 40 percent of younger workers are actively dissatisfied is more congruent with other surveys and research with that age group. For example, that younger workers are more intent on finding a positive workplace culture; one with opportunities for continuous learning and growth. Those under about 35 have a different orientation to work than older workers. Moreover, they're more likely to leave their organization rather than resign themselves to an unfulfilling career environment, according to a Thompson Reuters survey.

And..Some Do Have It Good
Of course, the above realities exist alongside some who truly can report being "very satisfied" with their work and careers in their later years. Some do find a good match between their career desires, talents, and opportunity for steady growth and success, over the years. So, during the final years of their careers they can report being "very satisfied. Such people do exist. They are the lucky ones within our changing, unpredictable business environment and career culture.