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 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.