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In my native language, there is an idiom "getting stuck in/between the cogwheels/gears [of life or times]," referring to a situation, where a person is having serious difficulties in managing his everyday life, e.g. losing his job and ending up homeless and a drug addict. The idiom refers in particular to the difficulties of coming to terms with the fast-paced modern life (with its spinning "wheel of time" with innumerable small cogs and gears) and probably originates from the early-20th century technological pessimism. One can visualize the idiom in the famous factory scene in Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," where the Tramp is swallowed into a machine full of cogs and wheels.

Is there a similar idiom in English describing what the Tramp is going through, getting lost in the "wheel of (modern) time" (even if archaic)?

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  • Certainly "stuck in the gears of Modern Times" strikes a note with those (at least vaguely) familiar with the movie. However, "those" is unlikely to include people under 50.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 6, 2020 at 22:26
  • My son aged 23 studied 'Modern Times' in his media course at college. Mar 6, 2020 at 23:46
  • Stuck in the gears to this English speaker sounds more like someone still involved in modern life and hating it. This sounds more like someone who got chewed up by the gears and finally dropped on the floor.
    – Mary
    Dec 18, 2022 at 17:33

4 Answers 4

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I can’t think of an expression that encompasses both the idea of being in personal difficulties and that of the cause being a failure to adjust to modernity. Focusing on the temporal aspect (which the current two answers have neglected) the best I can suggest is:

Life has passed him by

There may be modern business-speak terms involving “passing sell-by dates” and the like, but they hardly count as either English or idioms.

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  • But 'temporal' does not entail 'modernity'. I'm not sure this example even connotes modernity (other than by using the present perfect). Dec 18, 2022 at 14:40
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Individuals who are stuck in the rat race are more than just unhappy—they’re actually negatively affecting their health and well-being. According to a recent Forbes article, individuals who hate their jobs face some serious consequences, including increased risks for stress, sleeplessness, illness, and mental health issues.

[The Job Network; bolding mine]

Merriam-Webster gives the noun:

the rat race noun:

the unpleasant life of people who have jobs that require them to work very hard in order to compete with others for money, power, status, etc.

She is quitting the rat race to spend time with her family.

And Wikipedia explains the metaphor:

History

In an analogy to the modern city, many may see citizens, as rats in a single maze, expend a lot of effort running around, ultimately achieving 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". A key aspect of the rat race is being inflicted on the individual by uncontrollable outside forces such as researchers in the case of literal rats in a laboratory maze, or the inherent logic, pressures and incentives of contemporary businesses and society (e.g. productivity, acceleration, status). This terminology contains implications that many people see work as a seemingly endless pursuit with little reward or purpose (cyclical commute between home and work, akin to a rat running in circles or in a hamster wheel).

............

A similar metaphor is being stuck on the treadmill.

From The Cambridge Dictionary (it's both reassuring as regards their sampling methods and worrying result-wise that they list the metaphorical usage first) :

treadmill

  1. any type of repeated work that is boring and makes you feel tired and seems to have no positive effect and no end:

There were days when having kids seemed like an endless treadmill of feeding, washing, and nappy-changing.

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    I suggest that you can be stuck in the rat race or on a treadmill, but not suffer the vicissitudes of the destitute, which is what the OP describes. In fact, I suspect that the meaning of merely being bored or frustrated, yet still in work, is commoner.
    – Greybeard
    Mar 6, 2020 at 21:10
  • Note the eg in 'e.g. losing his job and ending up homeless and a drug addict'. And while I'm not claiming 100% synonymity here, I'd certainly not see it as a less appropriate answer than 'slipping through the net', with its connotation of passiveness. ' ... coming to terms with the fast-paced modern life (with its spinning "wheel of time" with innumerable small cogs and gears)' implies hecticness. Mar 7, 2020 at 11:14
  • Again, I don't see what this has to do with modernity.
    – David
    Dec 17, 2022 at 22:55
  • But Wikipedia does: 'In an analogy to the modern city, many may see citizens....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". A key aspect of the rat race is being inflicted on the individual by uncontrollable outside forces such as researchers in the case of literal rats in a laboratory maze, or the inherent logic, pressures and incentives of contemporary businesses and society (e.g. productivity, acceleration, status). This terminology contains implications that many people.' From 1934. Dec 18, 2022 at 14:37
  • The term desired is more like dropping out of the rat race from exhaustion
    – Mary
    Dec 18, 2022 at 17:35
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In British English, we say "he has slipped through the net."

The "net" is the "safety net." (The safety net in circuses is placed between trapeze artists and the ground so as to prevent serious injury or death if they should fall.) However, this is a figurative meaning and "the net" refers to the social welfare system that should prevent people from abject poverty.

In an article in 'The Manchester Evening News' on the homeless in Manchester, there is the comment:

“You see people walking into town from the B&Bs to beg with their shoes held together with elastic bands.”

Until it happened to him, he had no idea that this was where people end up, he admits.

“It’s disgusting. And the landlords are making money off them, but you become very resigned to it.

These people have slipped through the net. Where’s their voice?”

https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/hidden-manchester-slums-story-squalor-14561374

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  • There are also variants like "fallen through the cracks", which have the same idea.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 17, 2022 at 20:58
  • I don't see what this has to do with modernity.
    – David
    Dec 17, 2022 at 22:55
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fall by the wayside

If someone falls by the wayside, they fail to finish an activity,

This applies even if the activity is "live a normal life."

(I was thinking "slip through the cracks" but that implies a negligence on the part of others.)

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