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, to no avail. 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.
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).
"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
- In the Bob Dylan song, "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)", there is a lyric "While one who sings with his tongue on fire gargles in the rat race choir, bent out of shape from society's pliers, cares not to come up any higher, but rather get you down in the hole that he's in."
- 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)".
- 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" the characters play a boardgame known as Rat Race and the song is about a man who tires 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 may refer 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 referred to in the song.
- The title track of Cinderella's album "Night Songs (Cinderella album)" is quoted as saying, "Sick and tired rat race takin' my thrills".
- In a Royce D'59 song " Boblo boat", Rapper J. Cole's line states "stuck inside a rat race" While reminiscing over his past life.
- "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), 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. 
- "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
- 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."
- "Enter Shikari Stream 'Rat Race' EP". Alt Press. Retrieved 2014-06-22.