It might surprise you to learn that the rat race was once a dance to jazz music, originally coined in the 1930s. It was one of the variety of dances with animal names, like the turkey trot or bunny hop, that were popular among teenagers. The current usage has nothing to do with the dance and may refer metaphorically to the futile existence of laboratory rats that are doomed to run mazes daily to receive a prize at the end. Such rats don’t make progress, but are like Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up to the top of the hill each day, only to have it roll down again so the whole process must repeat.
Laboratory rats that run mazes don’t get anywhere, and repeat the same events, at least some of the time. Their lives are an endless series of tests with few rewards. They further spend their lives in cages when not in a rat race.
Modern usage of the term tends to refer to the working environment of humans, which to some is interpreted as a place of competition or working without reward or performing meaningless work. For the most pessimistic folks, the daily rat race offers no chance of future success and recognizes no possibility of invention, excitement or entertainment. It could also be comparable to the phrase running on a treadmill. You continue to run to keep up, but you don’t get anywhere.
Though the rat race may be specific to employment, some people generalize the term to mean the sum total of existence, perhaps based on capitalist or market economies. In this sense, the rat race could be the state of attempting to keep up with others, a futile competition that arrives nowhere. William Wordsworth, the English Romantic poet expresses such sentiment, long before the term rat race was coined, in the sonnet The World is Too Much with Us; Late and Soon:
- The world is too much with us; late and soon
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Calling human existence a rat race tends to overgeneralize the existence of people with a cup half empty mindset. It’s seldom the case that a human being’s life is completely futile, that there are not moments of joy, success, happiness, and emotional wealth of other kinds. To suggest that life is merely a series of futile exercises makes the very messiness of human existence a lie and instead creates the impression that life is a clinical, predictable set of the same actions and repeated outcomes. It’s sheer hyperbole or at least poetic license to compare life to laboratory rats. While we all may sometimes seem to be running a rat race in actions that seem futile and are repeated without much progress, to reduce the sum total of the human condition to one is inaccurate and exaggerated.