It died in 2002. One hundred and forty years of loyal service, wiped out by a ambitious young currency shared by 17 countries. Today, the lira – the unknown – is cherished only by nostalgics and collectors. The euro generation – the young Italians who have grown up with the new currency – are unaware it ever existed. You think I exaggerate? Just listen to the actor Federico Russo, 13. “Can you tell me about the lira, Federico?” “It's an old currency”. “But you've never heard of it in school, at home, or at your grandparents?” “No, never heard of it.”
“There’s nothing surprising about that,” says Stefano Caselli, professor at Bocconi University in Milan, reassuringly. From a social perspective, this phenomenon can be compared to the internet. “Today, three generations live together: those who grew up in the Stone Age, those who have adapted to the euro, and those who were born with it. The euro generation, which cannot even imagine a world without the euro, is not looking backwards, wondering how things used to be. They’re reinforcing globalisation, and they are even a stabilising element. Those who grew up with the lira, on the other hand, are contributing to the distortion of prices, as they persist in comparing two periods that can’t be compared. Most young people, though, reduce inflation, because they are not making that comparison."
Now hardly anyone – except the older generation – converts prices back into lire. Prices of taxi rides are still compared: “To get from Malpensa airport to Milan it used to cost 70,000 lire (about 35 euros), and now they charge me 85 euros...” This type of awareness leads to an escalation of depressing considerations of wages and the high cost of living. “We got used to the euro. It’s like learning to drive a car with an automatic transmission or with a right-hand drive. After some time, we just stop thinking about it,” says Luigi Campiglio, Professor of Political Economy at the Catholic University of Milan.
Italian consumers have no regrets about dumping the old currency
“For my students it’s even easier. They barely remember the pocket money their grandparents gave them in lira. They travel more often, and many of them take part in the Erasmus program. They find it all quite natural, this change that is actually a monumental achievement: being able to move from one country to another without bumping up against political or bureaucratic obstacles. And if any of them decide to go work in France or Germany, the choice doesn’t call up the spectre of emigration.”
Paolo Legrenzi, professor at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, has studied the psychological effects of the emergence of the euro on the Italians from the beginning. “This is an extremely rare event in the history of humanity, made even more exceptional in that the same thing happened in the rest of Europe. Unfortunately for us, it came at the same time as the deepest recession since the Second World War. The euro has been hit with the blame for the higher prices. The nostalgics don’t want to remember how low the lira’s purchasing power was and how frequently it was devalued. Conversely, young people take a positive view of the euro. This generation is the happiest, and for them the problem doesn’t come up.” The young people of the euro generation – aged from zero to twenty-five years – are “those who had no budget to manage nine years ago. Those on the other hand who had their own money then certainly compared the lira with the euro at the time of transition. Then they got on with it and quickly adapted to the new currency."
“Today, Italian consumers have no regrets about dumping the old currency,” observes Ivano Daele of Altroconsumo, the consumer organization. Those who benefit most obviously are the young, who find the euro and the internet great tools for comparing prices, sizing up products and services, learning more about them. Only a residual fringe of society still has difficulty with the single currency, and those are the elderly. It may be some comfort to them that the lira they miss has not existed for many years. As the economic historian Peter Cafaro explains: “We used to sing: If I could make a thousand lira a month ... Based on current prices, a thousand of those old lira would amount to a thousand euros today. But the difference is significant, as the purchasing power of today has nothing in common with the purchasing power of yesterday.”