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. It is the perceived Conventional Wisdom, for example, that those who work for themselves are generally happier at work.
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.
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, possibly beyond the "urban growth boundary".
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 6 and a long commute.
Working from home.
Becoming financially independent from an employer.
A rat race is a fierce competition to maintain or improve one's position in the workplace or social life. This term presumably alludes to the rat's desperate struggle for survival. [Colloquial; first half of 1900s]
Urban planners often use the term 'rat racing' to describe behaviour by motorists who choose to travel to the most direct route by using secondary roads not intended for through traffic.