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.

Artist's depiction of the modern day rat race

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

Etymology edit

In the late 1800's, the term "rat-run" was used meaning "maze-like passages by which rats move about their territory", commonly used in a derogatory sense.

By the 1930s actual rat races of some sort are frequently mentioned among carnival and gambling attractions.[1]

By 1934, "rat-race" was also used in reference to aviation training, referring to 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 1939, the phrase took on the meaning of "competitive struggle" referring to a person's work and life.[2]

Historical usage 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[3] 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[4] 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 published in 1956:[5]

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.

Merle A. Tuve used the term rat race in a 1959 article entitled "Is Science Too Big for the Scientist?", writing:[6]

There is a growing conviction among many of my friends in academic circles that the university today is no place for a scholar in science. A professor's life nowadays is a rat-race of busyness and activity, managing contracts and projects, guiding teams of assistants, bossing crews of technicians, making numerous trips, sitting on committees for government agencies, and engaging in other distractions necessary to keep the whole frenetic business from collapse.

Solutions edit

"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
  • 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

Music edit

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ "Cock fights, rat races and illegal gambling dens". Moscow News. 2013.
  2. ^ "Rat-race". Online Etymology Dictionary. 2020.
  3. ^ Lang, Daniel (November 7, 1953). "A farewell to string and sealing wax~I". The New Yorker. p. 47.
  4. ^ Bishop, Jim (1956). The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason. Simon and Schuster. p. 258.
  5. ^ Whyte, Jr., William H. (1956). The Organization Man (First ed.). Simon and Schuster. p. 4.
  6. ^ Tuve, Merle A. (June 6, 1959). "Is Science Too Big for the Scientist?". Saturday Review: 48–51.

Further reading edit

  • Leaving the Mother Ship by Randall M. Craig (Knowledge to Action Press, ISBN 0-9735404-0-0, 2004).
Listen to this article (6 minutes)
This audio file was created from a revision of this article dated 18 March 2023 (2023-03-18), and does not reflect subsequent edits.