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. The phrase equates humans to rats attempting to earn a reward such as cheese, in vain. It may also refer to a competitive struggle to get ahead financially or routinely.

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


The earliest known occurrence is 1934. In reference to aviation training a rat race was originally a "follow-the-leader" game in which a trainee fighter pilot had to copy all the actions (loops, rolls, spins, Immelmann turns etc.) performed by an experienced pilot. From 1945, the phrase took on the meaning of "competitive struggle.[1]"

Practical uses[edit]

  • The Rat Race was used as a title for a novel written by Jay Franklin in 1947 for Colliers Magazine and first published in book form in 1950. It is dedicated To those few rats in Washington who do not carry brief-cases.
  • The term "rat race" was used in an article about Samuel Goudsmit published in 1953 entitled: A Farewell to String and Sealing Wax~I in which Daniel Lang[2] wrote,

Sometimes when his sardonic mood is on him, he wonders whether the synchrotrons, the betatrons, the cosmotrons, and all the other contrivances physicists have lately rigged up to create energy by accelerating particles of matter aren't playing a wry joke on their inventors. "They are accelerating us too," he says, in a voice that still betrays a trace of the accent of his native Holland. In protesting against the speedup, Goudsmit can speak with authority, for in the course of only a few years, he, like many other contemporary physicists, has seen his way of life change from a tranquil one of contemplation to a rat race.

"Maybe," McLean said softly, "you and I can then get off this rat race. You and I and all the rest of us. And live like human beings." "Rat race," Fowler murmured. "Rats in a maze. Doing tricks. Performing chores thought up by somebody else." McClean caught Fowler's eye. "By somebody of another species."

  • Jim Bishop[3] used the term rat race in his book The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason. The term occurs in a letter Jackie Gleason wrote to his wife in which he says: "Television is a rat race, and remember this, even if you win you are still a rat."
  • William H. Whyte used the term rat race in The Organization Man:[4]

The word collective most of them can't bring themselves to use—except to describe foreign countries or organizations they don't work for—but they are keenly aware of how much more deeply beholden they are to organization than were their elders. They are wry about it, to be sure; they talk of the "treadmill," the "rat race," of the inability to control one's direction.


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

  • Movement from work or geographical location into (typically) a more rural area
  • Retirement, quitting or ceasing work
  • Moving from a job of high strenuosity to one of lesser strenuosity, like the tang ping lifestyle of young Chinese laboratory.
  • Adopting a Buddha-like mindset
  • Changing to a different job altogether
  • Remote work
  • Becoming financially independent from an employer
  • Living in harmony with nature
  • Developing an inner attitude of detachment from materialistic pursuits
  • Alienation from the norms of society


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Rat-race". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2020.
  2. ^ Lang, Daniel (November 7, 1953). "A farewell to string and sealing wax~I". The New Yorker: 47.
  3. ^ Bishop, Jim (1956). The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 258.
  4. ^ Whyte, Jr., William H. (1956). The Organization Man (First ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 4.

Further reading[edit]

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