Rat race

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Artist's depiction of the modern day rat race.

A rat race is an endless, self-defeating, or pointless pursuit. It conjures up the image of lab rats racing through a maze to get the "cheese" much like society racing to get ahead financially.

The term is commonly associated with an exhausting, repetitive lifestyle that leaves no time for relaxation or enjoyment.


In an analogy to the modern city, many rats in a single maze expend a lot of effort running around, but ultimately achieve nothing (meaningful) either collectively or individually. This is often used in reference to work, particularly excessive or competitive work; in general terms, if one works too much, one is in the rat race. A key aspect of the rat race is that being inflicted on the individual by uncontrollable outside forces - researchers in the case of rats in laboratory maze, the inherent logic, pressures and incentives of contemporary businesses and society (e.g. productivity, acceleration, status). This terminology contains implications that many people see work as a seemingly endless pursuit with little reward or purpose (humans commuting back and forth the ever same paths between home and cubicle, akin to a rat running in circles or in a hampster wheel).

Escaping the rat race can have a number of different meanings:

  • A description of the movement, of either the Home or Work Location, of previously City Dwellers or Workers to more rural locations
  • Retirement in general or no longer needing / having to work.
  • Moving from a high pressure job to a less intense role either at a different company or within the same company at an alternative location or department.
  • Changing to a different job that does not involve working 9 to 5 and a long commute.
  • Working from home.
  • Becoming financially independent from an employer.
  • Entering professions such as motivational speaking
  • Moving away from the city to the country and living in harmony with nature
  • Political unification
  • Developing an inner attitude of detachment from materialistic pursuits and outside pressure


  • Bob Marley performed "Rat Race" in 1976.
  • Another song entitled"'Rat Race" by ska band The Specials appears on More Specials (1980). It was not included on the UK or Dutch releases of the album.
  • "Rat Race" is also a song contained in the 1980 album Brand New Age by English punk band UK Subs.
  • "Slave to the Wage" by English alternative rock band Placebo is a song that describes the classical Rat Race, on the 2000 album Black Market Music.
  • British band Enter Shikari released an EP entitled Rat Race on 5 November 2013 on Hopeless Records which consists of 3 singles—"The Paddington Frisk", "Radiate" and "Rat Race"—and "Radiate (Shikari Sound System Remix)".[1]
  • The bridge of The Temptations' song Cloud Nine contains the lyric "the world of reality's a rat race, where only the strong survive."
  • In Blur's song "Country House" they play a boardgame known as Rat Race and the song is about a man who gets tired of his life in the city and moves to the countryside for a more relaxed pace of life. "I'm caught in a rat race terminally".
  • The song "Even If You Win, You're Still a Rat" by Architects refers to a meaningless pursuit of money. "Don't slip up, chase that finish line. They don't want you believing that your life deserves a meaning."
  • Tobias Sammet's Avantasia has a song "Rat Race" on the album The Wicked Symphony, with guest singer Jørn Lande.
  • The song The Racing Rats by Editors refers to a Rat Race, trying to "[..] keep up with the racing rats // And do my best to win".
  • Andy Mineo's song "Rat Race" talks about the freedom he found in Jesus and that he does not run in the "rat race" of money, sex, and drugs.
  • "Escape (Free Yo Mind From This Rat Race)" was released as the b-side of "Glam Slam", the second single from Prince's album Lovesexy and was later included on The B-Sides compilation.
  • The song "Action This Day" by British band Queen on their album Hot Space references a rat race in the line "Your mind's living in a rat race".
  • The song "Committed to Parkview" (1985) by Johnny Cash, which deals with insanity and mental institutions, mentions "a few quite well-to-do's who have withdrawn from the rat race" by getting committed to the hospital the song talks about.
  • The title track of "Cinderella (band)"s album "Night Songs (Cinderella album)". "Sick and tired rat race takin' my thrills".


  • "No matter what you do in the rat race, success is not certain but if you do nothing, failure is." Paul Ulasien, Author - The Corporate Rat Race: The Rats Are Winning. (2006). Baltimore, MD: Publish America.
  • The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat. — commonly attributed to Lily Tomlin in People magazine (26 Dec 1977)[1], but according to The Yale Book of Quotations (Shapiro & Epstein, p. 767), Rosalie Maggio in The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women states that William Sloane Coffin said "Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat" as chaplain of Williams College or Yale University in the 1950s or 1960s. [2]
  • "That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing." David Foster Wallace in his Commencement Address at Kenyon College. Gambier, Ohio. May 21, 2005.
  • "A rat race is for rats. We're not rats. We're human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice, lest you jeopardise your chances of self-promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts. And before you know where you are, you're a fully paid-up member of the rat pack. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit." Jimmy Reid, Glasgow University rectoral address, 1972.
  • Often, people work long hard hours at jobs they hate, to earn money to buy things they don't need, to impress people they don't like. — Nigel Marsh[2]
  • John Steinbeck has one of his characters in his 1947 book "The Wayward Bus", a young college student, dismiss her father's life-style succinctly as "He was afraid of his friends and his friends were afraid of him. A rat race she thought."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Enter Shikari Stream 'Rat Race' EP". Alt Press. Retrieved 2014-06-22. 
  2. ^ http://www.ted.com/talks/nigel_marsh_how_to_make_work_life_balance_work.html

Further reading[edit]

  • Leaving the Mother Ship by Randall M. Craig (Knowledge to Action Press, ISBN 0-9735404-0-0, 2004).