A rat race is 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. 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. This terminology contains implications that many people see work as a seemingly endless pursuit with little reward or purpose.
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.
With regard to environmental problems and the tragedy of the commons, rat races occur when governments compete to have the lowest environmental standard in order to remain attractive to polluting industries. For example, if one country has a high carbon tax in order to internalize externality costs, production may mitigate to countries that have lower standards and lower costs to the country at a much higher societal cost. Thus, it becomes a race for the lowest acceptable environmental standard at high externality costs, even though individually the countries may all be better off societally if there was no such race, i.e. it just becomes a prisoners dilemma where no one wins.
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 5 and a long commute.
- Working from home.
- Becoming financially independent from an employer.
- Entering professions such as motivational speaking
- Moving away from the city to the country and living in harmony with nature
- Political unification
- 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.
- British band Enter Shikari released an EP entitled Rat Race on 5th November 2013 on Hopeless Records which consists of 3 singles—'The Paddington Frisk', 'Radiate' and 'Rat Race'—and 'Radiate (Shikari Sound System Remix)'.
- In Blur's song Country House they play a boardgame known as Rat Race and the song is about a man who gets tired 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 The Racing Rats by Editors refers to a Rat Race, trying to "[..] keep up with the racing rats // And do my best to win".
- Tobias Sammet's Avantasia has a song 'Rat Race' on the album The Wicked Symphony, with guest singer Jørn Lande.
- Andy Mineo's song 'Rat Race' talks about the freedom he's found in Jesus and that he doesn't run in the "rat race" of money, sex, and drugs.
- "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.
- Leaving the Mother Ship by Randall M. Craig (Knowledge to Action Press, ISBN 0-9735404-0-0, 2004).