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.”
In an analogy to the modern city, many may see citizens, as rats in a single maze, expend a lot of effort running around, ultimately achieving 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 being inflicted on the individual by uncontrollable outside forces such as researchers in the case of literal rats in a laboratory maze, or 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 (cyclical commute between home and work, akin to a rat running in circles or in a hamster wheel).
- 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 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.
- Philip K. Dick used the term in The Last of the Masters published in 1954: "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 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.
"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
- Changing to a different job altogether
- Working from home
- 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
- "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.
- "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.
- "Rat Race" by English ska band The Specials
- "Mice Race" by British Anarcho-punk/Deathrock band Rudimentary Peni.
- Rat Race Devil's Playground by Billy Idol (2005)
- Rat Race Rastaman Vibration by Bob Marley (1976)
- Rat Race by Babbu Maan (album Pagal Shayar-2020)
- The Clockwise Witness by DeVotchKa is a song that describes the futility of Rat Race (album A Mad & Faithful Telling-2008)
- The Myth of Sisyphus, an essay by Albert Camus
- Sisyphus, a Greek mythological figure
- Work-life balance
- Economic sociology
- "Rat-race". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2020. Retrieved 2 May 2020.
- Lang, Daniel (November 7, 1953). "A farewell to string and sealing wax~I". The New Yorker: 47.
- Bishop, Jim (1956). The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 258.