A rat race is analogous to rats in a maze that compete against one another to be the first to get the cheese. The cheese is a measly reward, yet the rats continue to compete for this small prize. When one refers to the rat race, one envisions harried, unhappy people working long hours for little pay and little recognition. Yet they continue to participate in the rat race because their families depend on their earnings.
The rat race typically means no work-life balance, no independence, high stress, long commutes, and general dissatisfaction with life. Work-life balance refers to a proportionate way of life. While work is necessary, its purpose is to provide the means to enjoy a satisfying life. One with work-life balance works the necessary hours but has time left to enjoy family and friends, pursuing things he or she enjoys.
Those that participate in the rat race often wish for more independence in their jobs. They would prefer to work for themselves or for a company that gives them ownership of their work. Working for someone else often means allowing someone else to take credit for your efforts and pursuing goals that have no meaning. Independence refers both to the ability to pursue a job without having to work for someone else and financial independence, the ability to support oneself without depending on a paycheck from an employer.
The rat race also can also come with high stress. Some jobs, such as air traffic controllers, attorneys, and ER doctors, carry a lot of stress.
Long commutes can be particularly troublesome, even if one does enjoy their job. When time is wasted going to and from a job, it is difficult to rationalize time away from both work and home.
Finally, people in the rat race are generally dissatisfied with their lives, for any of the above reasons. Getting out of the rat race may seem impossible and one may lose hope that they will ever be able to control their own life.