Rat race  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A rat race is a term used for an endless, self-defeating or pointless pursuit. It conjures up the image of the futile efforts of a lab rat trying to escape while running around a maze or in a wheel. 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.

The rat race is a term often used to describe work, particularly excessive work; in general terms, if one works too much, one is in the rat race. This terminology contains implications that many people see work as a seemingly endless pursuit with little reward or purpose. Not all workers feel like that. For example, self-employment contributes to an increase in job satisfaction and the self-employed may experience less job related mental strain.

The rat race also refers to the fierce competition involved in maintaining or improving one's position in the workplace or on the social ladder. This term presumably alludes to the rat's desperate struggle for survival. [Colloquial; first half of 1900s]

Urban planners often use the term 'rat racing' to describe behaviour by motorists who choose to travel to the most direct route by using secondary roads not intended for through traffic.

The increased image of work as a "rat race" in modern times has led many to question their own attitudes to work and seek a better alternative; a more harmonious Work-life balance. Many believe that long work hours, unpaid overtime, stressful jobs, time spent commuting, less time for family life and/or friends life, has led to a generally unhappier workforce/population unable to enjoy the benefits of increased economic prosperity and a higher standard of living.

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 6 and a long commute.
  • Working from home.
  • Becoming financially independent from an employer.


Quotes

  • 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 are not rats. We are human beings. Reject the insidious pressures of society that would blunt your critical faculties to all the happenings around you that would caution silence in the face of injustices lest you jeopardize your changes of promotions and self advancement. This is how it starts and before you know where you are you are a fully-paid up member of the rat pack. The price is too high. It entails a loss of your dignity and human spirit." Jimmy Reid, Glasgow University rectoral address, 1972





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Rat race" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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