"Let's for a moment honor it as a legitimate question, although it's quite offensive," she said. "But you don't realize that, I guess."
The heart of Russert's question makes sense to many: If Pelosi doesn't give up her position, a younger person doesn't have a chance to take it. That viewpoint is repeated in countless workplaces around the country, where a younger person awaits a senior employee's departure for their chance to ascend.
In the microeconomic view of things, Pelosi remaining in her job at the age of 73 does deny others her district's seat in Congress or a chance to ascend to the leadership. But economists say the larger macroeconomic view gives a clearer picture: Having older people active and productive actually benefits all age groups, they say, and spurs the creation of more jobs.
Munnell and Wu analyzed Current Population Survey data to test for any changes in employment among those under 55 when those 55 and older worked in greater numbers. They found no evidence younger workers were losing work and in fact found the opposite: Greater employment, reduced unemployment and yielded higher wages.
Munnell said, outside of economists, the findings can be hard for people to understand when they think only of their own workplace.
"They just could not get in their heads this dynamism that is involved," she said. "You can't extrapolate from the experience of a single company to the economy as a whole."
Melissa Quercia, 35, a controller for a small information technology company in Phoenix, said she sees signs of the generational job battle all around her: jobs once taken by high schoolers now filled by seniors, college graduates who can't find work anywhere, the resulting dearth of experience of younger applicants. She doesn't see economists' arguments playing out. Older people staying on the job aren't spurring new jobs, because companies aren't investing in creating new positions, she said.
"It's really hard to retire right now, I understand that," she said. "But if the younger generation doesn't have a chance to get their foot in the door, then what?"
Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who edited a book on the subject for the National Bureau of Economic Research, said it's a frustrating reality of his profession: That those things he knows as facts are disputed by the populace.
"If you polled the average American they probably would think the opposite," he said. "There's a lot of things economists say that people don't get and this is just one of them."
Matt Sedensky, an AP writer on leave, is studying aging and workforce issues as part of a one-year fellowship at the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which joins NORC's independent research and AP journalism. The fellowship is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and supported by APME, an association of AP member newspapers and broadcast stations. Follow Matt Sedensky on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sedensky
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